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Thursday, February 25, 1999 Published at 09:48 GMT

World: Africa

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.

Lagos waits for change: Barnaby Phillips reports
Nigeria's first and second republics ended in military coups, in 1966 and 1983 respectively, and the third republic never got off the ground after the military stepped in at the last moment to annul the 1993 elections.

[ image: General Abacha's death sparked massive change]
General Abacha's death sparked massive change
The speed with which events have moved in the last nine months is breathtaking. Until June of last year, the military regime of General Sani Abacha was firmly in control.

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.

Mark Doyle outlines the candidates policies
But General Abacha's sudden death, reportedly whilst entertaining prostitutes in his presidential villa, has changed everything.

Pessimists confounded

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.

[ image: General Abdulsalami Abubakar signs in as president]
General Abdulsalami Abubakar signs in as president
The equally unexpected death in July of last year of Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of the annulled 1993 elections, plunged Nigeria into crisis, but ultimately may have hastened the process of reform.

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.

[ image:  ]
Nigerian and foreign observers have given General Abubakar's transition programme a cautious endorsement. "We have our reservations, but by and large it's a case of so far so good", says Clement Nwankwo, of the Nigerian Transitional Monitoring Group.

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.

Tension rises

Nigeria elections
Local elections in December and state elections in January passed off peacefully, and the turn-out was higher than many had expected.

But the stakes are much higher in the parliamentary and presidential elections, and political tension has risen.

[ image: Unrest followed the death of Moshood Abiola]
Unrest followed the death of Moshood Abiola
Nigerians could be forgiven a sense of deja vu as they survey the leading personalities in the main parties taking part.

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

[ image: Local elections attracted a high turnout]
Local elections attracted a high turnout
If the events of the next few weeks pass off smoothly, which is by no means a foregone conclusion, the civilian government that assumes office in May will find itself confronted by massive problems.

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.

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