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Regional Outlook : Africa Moves Fitfully Toward Democracy : Nigeria's election fiasco typifies problems of entrenched leaders, unrest and mistrust.


NAIROBI, Kenya — Looking back on it now, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida's scheme for the perfect democracy in Nigeria, Africa's largest country and long an example for the continent, seemed a little too perfect.

He created two parties and wrote their platforms--one a little bit right of center, the other a little bit to the left. To keep the process spanking clean, he decreed that no former politicians or military coup-makers, including himself, could run for office. And he turned down plenty of nominees before the parties selected two candidates who met his exacting standards.

Finally, after three delays, Babangida allowed the country to go to the polls last month. The only problem was that the voters elected Moshood K.O. Abiola, from the left-center Social Democratic Party, while Babangida had favored Bashir Tofa, from the right-center National Republication Convention.

Babangida tossed out the election results and, after several days of rioting and an army crackdown that left up to 100 Nigerians dead, he promised to create an interim government. Then he changed his mind, calling new elections for Aug. 14 and tossing in two new rules that disqualified both Abiola and Tofa.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 3, 1993 Home Edition World Report Page 5 Column 4 World Report Desk 2 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Mali election--A summary of the status of democracy in Africa that appeared on Page 4 of last week's World Report misstated recent developments in Mali. Alpha Oumar Konare won the country's first multi-party elections last year, succeeding President Amadou Toumani Toure, who came to power in a 1991 coup. The coup ended the 23-year dictatorship of Gen. Moussa Traore.

Babangida still promises to hand over power to civilian rule on Aug. 27, the eighth anniversary of the coup that brought him to power.

But Africa's biggest experiment in democracy, one being watched by nervous leaders across the continent, has lost all credibility, both at home and abroad.

"My suspicion now is that he really doesn't want to hand over power at all," said Larry Diamond, an African affairs specialist at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "He's hoping that this thing will implode again, and give him an excuse to stay on. It's pathetic, really. The man is just inventing the rules as he goes along."

Nigeria's troubles follow a tide of democracy that has surged across Africa in recent years, changing the face of the world's poorest continent.

Since 1990, 11 of black-ruled Africa's 48 nations have seen democratic changes of government--rare events, indeed, during the first three decades of independence. In 10 other countries, incumbent rulers have managed to hold their crowns in new democratic elections.

But the transitions have been far from smooth. Growing democratic movements still battle powerful, corrupt and entrenched leaders. A downward economic spiral continues. And even new political legitimacy has failed in many countries to stem civil unrest, some of which is sponsored by the old, democratically deposed regimes.

In the typical African country, the average citizen has discovered that his vote has so far brought precious little new freedom and even less prosperity.

A new government in Zambia, though one of the continent's more stable, resorted to the time-honored tool of martial law to protect itself against coup plotters earlier this year. Opposition leaders have come to power in Congo and Niger, only to be pummeled by violence and military rebellions.

Former dictators were recently returned to power in widely boycotted elections in Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Gabon, Mauritania and Cameroon. And even in countries where the opposition has participated, voting often has been marred by allegations of fraud.

Kenya's president, Daniel Arap Moi, coasted to victory last December in his country's first multi-party elections in 25 years--but not before he had used his powers to manipulate the campaign and divide his opposition. Now, as Kenya sinks ever deeper into economic crisis, Moi's commitment to democracy remains questionable. The media still are regularly under attack and Moi's police still run roughshod over his opponents.

"I'm mildly encouraged that some progress has been made in Africa, but I'm very discouraged that it hasn't been smoother," said Pauline Baker, an African affairs analyst at the Aspen Institute in Washington.

"People tend to think you can just flick a switch and hold an election--and then everyone can go home and not worry," Baker added. "But Africa has been so burdened, and the deck stacked against it for so many years, that it would be naive to assume the transition can occur quickly or smoothly."

Across Africa, the transition appears to have been easiest in smaller countries, such as the island states of Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe and the tiny republics of Benin and Burundi.

Before 1990, only five African nations were democratic. Today, 26 countries, or more than half the continent, have at least nominal democracies. And 15 more have promised, with varying degrees of sincerity, to hold free elections.

But the larger and more powerful nations, especially the bellwether states of Kenya and Nigeria, have found the going rough.

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