ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — South Africa holds a free election and installs a democracy. A former political prisoner becomes president. History is written with a happy flourish.
Nigeria, with twice as many people, tries for democracy but stumbles, tumbling deeper into dictatorship. The apparent president becomes a fugitive with a price on his head.
Nearly a year separated these two decidedly different African elections. In between, the United States abandoned the smoldering shell of Somalia, wars waxed and waned in Liberia and Angola, and a sleek French jet carrying the president of Rwanda crashed mysteriously near his swimming pool, setting off a bloodletting of biblical proportions.
This Thursday is the first anniversary of the day the military decided to nullify a democratic presidential election in Nigeria, a nation of 90 million people that is home to one of every six black Africans.
Since then, the slow descent of Africa's most populous nation has been overshadowed by the spectacle of an entire continent careening from the inspiring to the stomach-churning, from the golden horizons of hope in South Africa to the red waves of horror in Rwanda.
Malawi's president-for-life was thrown out when he granted the first free election of his three decades in office. Ivory Coast's only post-colonial ruler died on the 34th anniversary of the day he led it to independence, prompting one distraught admirer to feed himself to the alligators in the presidential moat.
Fourteen West African nations buckled under pressure from Paris and devalued their common French-backed currency by half. That made their agricultural products more attractive abroad, but caused price increases for imported medicines and food. Riots and strikes resulted.
Exploited for centuries by slavers, superpowers and its own corrupt rulers, forced into geographic configurations devised by colonialists, Africa has endured the most tumultuous 12 months since the Cold War's end rendered it strategically insignificant while offering the promise of reform and revival.
The numbing decline in Nigeria has largely provided background noise to the more spectacular developments in Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi and South Africa.
Nigeria has styled itself as the economic, cultural and military bulwark of black Africa for decades, and has periodically lobbied for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. But when Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in April, Nigerians seemed to realize their claim to leadership was illusory.
"I felt thoroughly humiliated when Mandela took over, remembering that Nigeria is still in the throes of a seized democratic mandate," said Claude Ake, a prominent sociologist.
Retired Gen. Shehu Mus Yar'Adua felt pangs of envy when once-hated South Africa suddenly became the black-led beacon of the region.
"I could not sleep on the day Nelson Mandela was sworn into office," said Yar'Adua, who was No. 2 man in the last Nigerian military government to willingly give up power, in 1978.
Nigerians were embarrassed and aghast when Vice President Al Gore apparently ignored the current military strongman, Gen. Sani Abacha, at Mandela's inauguration.
Even the sole source of national pride these days, Nigeria's first-ever appearance in the World Cup soccer tournament, has been tainted by democracy's failure. Washington would not grant visas to Nigerian officials and reduced the number of flights for Nigerian soccer fans.
"We have lost in prestige and influence on a global scale," said Clement Nwankwo, head of the opposition Constitutional Rights Project. "You can now safely assume that no one will take Nigeria seriously with a non-racial South Africa."
After a decade of corrupt, incompetent military rule, Nigeria was poised in 1993 to complete the transition to civilian rule begun by Abacha's predecessor, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.
Moshood K. O. Abiola, a flamboyant media and transportation magnate with three wives, a platoon of mistresses and close ties to the military, apparently was elected president June 12, 1993, with surprising support that overcame the nation's ethnic and religious divisions.
Many Nigerians who had been cynical about the election were suddenly elated when Abiola beat the candidate considered more favored by the military, even though Abiola suffers in comparisons with Mandela.
South Africa's new president spent 27 years in prison under apartheid. When the going got rough in Nigeria, Abiola would flee in his private jet, saying he feared for his life.
On June 15, Babangida apparently had second thoughts and said no more returns would be released. On June 23, he annulled the election he had spent years organizing. Strikes and riots followed, leaving an estimated 200 people dead over three days.
Plagued by infighting within his military circle, he stepped down Aug. 26. Abacha promptly threw out the civilian administrator Babangida had left as his successor.