Tuesday, July 21, 1998 Published at 22:06 GMT 23:06 UK
UN and UK welcome Nigeria reforms
General Abubakar announced some reforms but postponed presidential elections
The United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, has welcomed the announcement by Nigeria's military leader, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, that he intends to hand over power to a civilian government next May.
Mr Annan said the UN was ready to help in the electoral process in Nigeria, and he urged the authorities to free remaining political prisoners without delay.
Meanwhile, Britain has said it will ask its European partners to relax sanctions on Nigeria.
The Foreign Office minister, Tony Lloyd, said the plan to restore democracy was the best news from Nigeria for a long time.
The reactions from the UN and the UK are the latest in a generally cautious welcome by the international community to General Abubakar's blueprint for reform.
Opposition not satisfied
Gen Abubakar, in a nationally televised broadcast on Monday evening, said the political parties established under his late predecessor, General Sani Abacha, had been discredited and were being abolished.
He said new parties and electoral bodies would be established to ensure that new elections were free and transparent.
The general rejected the idea of a government of national unity, saying this would be no more democratic than military rule.
The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, said it would be right to lift some of the sanctions imposed on Nigeria if the promised reforms became a reality.
But he told the BBC that Nigeria could only be readmitted to the Commonwealth once it had returned to a democratic form of government.
Nigeria's membership of the Commonwealth was suspended after the execution of writer, Ken Saro Wiwa, and other opponents of the military government in 1996.
The UN Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson, said she was heartened by General Abubakar's announcement and hoped "these encouraging words will soon be translated into reality."
The United States also welcomed the plans, while asking for clarification.
A BBC correspondent in Nigeria says the speech struck a chord among many Nigerians, for whom its tone of reconciliation implied a genuine intention to correct the mistakes of the past.
But supporters of the late opposition leader, Chief Moshood Abiola, expressed disappointment at the rejection of their demand for an immediate national unity government.
And opposition leader Gani Fawehinme, leader of the Joint Action Committee described the speech as an abomination.
He dismissed it as "a rehash of the lacklustre transition-to-democracy programmes of the previous military regimes" and said his group would boycott any elections overseen by the military.
The rest of the opposition has yet to make a formal response.
The BBC correspondent in Abuja says this response will be crucial, since if the promised elections are to have credibility, a wide section of political opinion in the country must be willing to form parties and participate.