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Thursday, June 18, 1998 Published at 13:02 GMT 14:02 UK

World: Africa

Analysis: What next for Nigerian democracy?

The opposition movement demands change

By BBC Lagos Correspondent Hilary Andersson

When Nigeria's new government released the former military leader General Olusegun Obasanjo from prison, it sent out a signal of reconciliation and raised hopes that the government is trying to find a solution to the country's political crisis.

[ image: Hilary Andersson]
Hilary Andersson
General Obasanjo was amongst nine political prisoners released by the new military government in its first few days in office. Already his release and the release of the other eight major political prisoners, has done much to change the mood in Nigeria.

On the streets people say for the first time in four years they feel safe to speak their minds openly, without fear of being hunted by the ever-present security police.

"There was an atmosphere of fear, people were afraid to speak. Now there is a certain euphoria in the air and people feel liberated", said political commentator Onyema Ogwachukwu.

Even some who publicly backed the late General Sani Abacha are now criticising him. He was a leader who ruled by repression, the levels of which went far beyond any thing Nigerians had experienced before in the last three decades of military rule.

Abiola: the imprisoned hero

[ image: Chief Abiola]
Chief Abiola
By releasing key political prisoners the new government effectively distanced itself from the General, but it has also heightened the debate about why Chief Mashood Abiola, the country's most famous political prisoner, is still in detention.

Chief Mashood Abiola the man who many believe won the last presidential elections of 1993 which were abruptly annulled by the military, has been under lock and key for four years now, awaiting trial on charges of treason for allegedly declaring himself to be Nigeria's rightful president.

Any elections the new government holds while he is locked up will lack credibility.

[ image: General Obasanjo - freed]
General Obasanjo - freed
The military has given clear signs that it does not want Chief Abiola to become president, and there are indications that it may now try to broker a deal with him, so that when and if they release him it is on certain conditions which restrict the role he plays in the political arena.

But the opposition has already said that any deal would be unacceptable.

"The military should hand over power now and Abiola should be freed. Then he can form a government of national reconciliation", said Senator Abraham Adesanya, leader of the country's main umbrella opposition group NADECO.

What Chief Mashood Abiola himself wants is another key unknown factor.

When will they hand over?

The new government has committed itself to handing over to democratic rule, but notably has not said when it will do so. It faces the difficult decision of whether to scrap the political parties inherited from General Abacha and start a fresh transition programme, or to stick to the former government promise to hand over power by October 1st this year at all costs.

"From the beginning they were government parties" said presidential hopeful MD Yusuf "but if we scrap them and start all over again it will be very difficult to keep within the timeframe of handing over power by October."

Once again the future of Nigeria hangs in the balance. People are watching to see whether the new leader General Abdulsalam Abubakar will use the military's traditional excuse that the country's problems are complex to hang onto power, or whether this time they will actually find a solution that is acceptable to all.

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