NIGERIANS are on the threshold of a transition to democracy, but
they have come this far and been turned away before.
One question dominates this country's politics: Will President
Ibrahim Babangida keep his promise to hold elections on June 12, or
postpone the transition for the fourth time in three years?
General Babangida, who took power in a military coup in 1985,
reaffirmed this week that the armed forces were committed to
handing over power Aug. 27, calling skeptics "choristers of the
But a military decree issued in April increased the powers of
the Army-backed National Electoral Commission to put off the
presidential polls, worrying some proponents of democratic rule.
Nigeria's Committee for the Defense of Human Rights called the
measure "part of the grand design for perpetual clinging on to
power by the military."
"If anything the decree has confirmed people's cynicism about
the whole transition program," said Niyi Akintola, a lawyer and
The military decree followed word that the government planned to
lift Nigeria's domestic fuel price subsidy, which brings the price
of gasoline down to a little more than 10 cents a gallon, on June
1. But with tensions running high before the polls and the
possibility that the move would cause riots, the government backed
down and said it would postpone lifting the subsidy.
Another decree on May 6 declared it an act of sedition,
punishable by death, to disrupt the government or the "fabric of
Nigeria." The decree came shortly after a scathing attack on
Babangida's rule in the local press by former head of state Lt.
Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, and after renewed calls for a national
conference to decide the future of the federation of Nigeria.
Two political parties are contesting the presidential elections
- the National Republican Convention (NRC), which is slightly
right-wing, and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which is
slightly to the left. Both are creations of the Babangida regime,
which banned all previous political groups in the 1980s and
promised to foster a new breed of civilian politicians free from
the corruption of the last civilian regime from 1979-83.
But with little difference in ideology or tradition to
distinguish the two parties, money, patronage, and clan loyalties
remain the criteria for election. Many Nigerians regard the two
parties as artificial, and the large number of young people who
have never known a general election are cynical about their choices.
Last December, Babangida annulled the results from earlier
presidential primaries because, he said, the use of an open ballot
led to blatant vote-rigging.
Fresh conventions at the end of March produced two Muslim
candidates, both close to Babangida, both wealthy businessmen, and
both without direct government experience. …