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Monday, July 20, 1998 Published at 22:49 GMT 23:49 UK

World: Africa

Nigeria gets green light for democracy

General Abubakar: "A difficult but necessary step"

The Nigerian military leader, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, has announced that power will be handed back to a civilian government at the end of next May - almost eight months later than previously scheduled.

BBC Correspondent Hilary Andersson in Abuja: A history of unfulfilled promises
General Abubakar, in a nationally televised broadcast, said that the political parties established under his late predecessor, General Sani Abacha, had been discredited and were being abolished.

New parties and electoral bodies will be established to ensure that new elections, early next year, would be free and transparent.

But General Abubaker ruled out the immediate establishment of a national unity government - the main demand of the opposition.

He described the dissolution of the political parties as "a difficult but necessary step" for the transition to democracy.

International supervision

Stressing the importance of Nigeria complying with what he called "international morality", he said all elections would be overseen by bodies such as the United Nations and the Commonwealth.

But he ruled out the possibility of holding a sovereign national conference to discuss the country's constitution and structure, which the opposition had been demanding.

The BBC Lagos correspondent says this is likely to enrage opposition groups, who say they will not accept elections overseen by a military which has lost so much credibility.

Economic reform

The BBC's Hilary Andersson: 'Nigeria's new government has won applause from around the world'
General Abubakar also announced plans to restructure the Nigerian economy, selling off state-owned utilities and industries in order to relieve the country's national debt.

He said his government would act against syndicate crime, which he described as "an embarrasment to the nation".

General Abubakar echoed the words of many past leaders in saying his adminstration had no intention of staying on in power beyond the handover date. Our correspondent says Nigerians are unlikely to take the general's promises seriously until they see a civilian government in power.

Under the transition programme of General Abacha, presidential elections were scheduled for August.

But since taking office six weeks ago, General Abubakar has dissolved the bodies overseeing the transition, sacked the government and ordered the release of hundreds of political prisoners, saying he is keenly aware of the need for national reconciliation.

Coup plot prisoners released

Commonwealth Secretary General Emeka Anyaoku on Abubaka: '...further evidence of his commitment to national reconciliation'
As Nigeria waited for the announcement, General Abubakar ordered the release of 10 more political prisoners sentenced for their parts in a 1995 coup plot and ordered their immediate release.

A number of others convicted of involvement, including the former head of state, General Obasanjo, were released last month.

But around half of the 40 people who were originally convicted remain in jail.

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