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Nigeria Haltingly Marches Toward Democracy in 1998

June 16, 1996|Adonis Hoffman | Adonis Hoffman is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

WASHINGTON — Two new developments in Nigeria have changed the political landscape both inside the country and within the international community concerned about the fate of Africa's most populous nation. The first involves a murder, while the second is connected to a report issued by a U.N. fact-finding mission.

The murder of Kudirat Abiola, wife of jailed opposition leader Moshood K.O. Abiola, is but the latest in Nigeria's bloody and seemingly interminable transition from military rule to civilian authority. But it would be a mistake to compare her murder to the government's execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, another prominent critic of the administration of Gen. Sani Abacha. The circumstances and motivations surrounding the killing of Mrs. Abiola are far less transparent than those connected with Saro-Wiwa's death last November. As such, the United States should go beyond the usual expressions of condolence and outrage and call on the Nigerian government to begin an independent judicial investigation of the crime, under the aegis of the Organization of African Unity, the Commission of African Jurists or another similar African organization.

In Nigeria, the reasons behind Mrs. Abiola's murder are widely speculated upon. Although a previously unknown group claiming to be close to Abiola took credit for the killing, there is no hard evidence that it carried out the deed. Still, her death has had immediate consequences for Nigeria's political equation.

* Renewed international scrutiny: It appeared that, with minor injury, Nigeria weathered the storm of heavy criticism that followed the hasty execution of Saro-Wiwa. As the United States, United Kingdom, Commonwealth and European Community scrambled for, then failed to reach agreement on harsher sanctions, the Nigerian government continued to implement its transition program. One result of Mrs. Abiola's murder has been to refocus international attention on Nigeria's problems.

* Jeopardizes the fate of Moshood Abiola: While some analysts believe that Mrs. Abiola's murder puts pressure on the government to release her husband, it is more likely that his detention will be extended. "Public safety" is one reason. The Nigerian government has maintained that Abiola is in prison, pending the outcome of his trial for treason, because his release would not only jeopardize a smooth transition to civilian rule but also endanger Abiola's own life. Abiola is vulnerable to attack from a number of quarters in Nigeria, including northern radicals and disillusioned members of his own Yoruba ethnic group.

* Raises the political stakes for a successful transition: With international eyes on his government again, Abacha must keep his pledge of restoring civilian rule by October 1998, or he will lose credibility. The list of wrongdoings implicating his regime is growing longer, and the West's wait-and-see posture may end if the transition schedule goes awry. Already, there is abundant skepticism in Nigeria that Abacha's transition plan contemplates the creation of political parties, his throwing his support to one of them and emerging as that party's presidential candidate, a la Jerry Rawlings of Ghana. If true, the speculation goes, Abacha would stand a good chance of winning the October 1998 election. Such an outcome would leave the United States and the West in a quandary: having to choose between respecting the outcome of what could be a reasonably fair election, on the one hand, and accepting a leader it has ostracized and demonized, on the other.

The second important development transfiguring Nigerian politics is the report of the United Nations mission, empowered by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to assess Nigeria's transitional program and its handling of the Saro-Wiwa trial. Among the report's highlights are:

* The government appears committed to restoring civilian rule by Oct. 1, 1998. Any attempt to interrupt or reverse the momentum generated by the transition program, the U.N. mission noted, could be counterproductive and further delay the goal of democratic rule. The government needs to build confidence among the opposition by releasing political prisoners, abolishing statutes that punish political activity and by opening the transition to Nigerians outside the military.

Toward that end, 28 political groups, including former governors and politicians, joined forces to form the Nigeria Centre Party, and the government announced that sitting ministers would be barred from participating in partisan politics for the next five years.

* Imposing harsher sanctions would retard progress in Nigeria, would potentially harm ordinary citizens and would have a negative impact on the entire West Africa region.

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