Thursday, February 25, 1999 Published at 09:48 GMT
On the threshold of democracy
Nigerians voting in state elections earlier this year
By BBC Correspondent in Lagos Barnaby Phillips
Africa's most populous nation is in the process of making its fourth attempt to install democracy in 38 troubled years since independence from Britain in 1960.
General Abacha's programme to return the country to civilian rule was a sham, intended to perpetuate his own rule. The international community, appalled by his human rights record, had turned Nigeria into a pariah state; suspended from the Commonwealth and subject to sanctions from both the EU and the United States.
His successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, a softly-spoken and dour soldier, confounded the pessimists almost from day one, releasing a string of political prisoners, and promising to implement a genuine handover to a democratically elected government.
Abiola, adamant that his mandate had been stolen from him, was Nigeria's most prominent political detainee; many members of Nigeria's ruling junta feared the consequences of his taking office.
Former American President Jimmy Carter was more effusive in his praise during a visit to Nigeria last month. "There is no doubting the total commitment of this administration to an open and fair process" he told reporters.
But the stakes are much higher in the parliamentary and presidential elections, and political tension has risen.
Many of those now championing the cause of democracy have happily served in corrupt military regimes, others enjoyed high office in the ill-fated second republic of 1979-83.
"We aren't seeing many Nigerians in their 30's and 40's getting involved in this process, but instead the familiar faces from an older generation" bemoans Clement Nwankwo.
And the age-old ethnic and regional differences, which have plagued Nigeria ever since independence, are once again at the forefront.
Problems in store
Nigeria's economy is in a mess; almost totally reliant on oil exports for hard currency, it has been hit hard by the global fall in oil prices, and by unrest in the oil-producing Niger delta.
The country's education and transport infrastructure are crumbling. Yet all the political parties and presidential candidates are making lavish promises to rapidly reverse the 20-year long decline in living standards.
If Nigeria's new civilian government can't meet expectations, standby for the soldiers to seize office once more.