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Thursday, February 18, 1999 Published at 18:29 GMT

Nigeria tastes freedom

"Night and day" - Gen Abacha (left) and Gen Abubakar (right)

In the months after Sani Abacha's death, West Africa Correspondent Mark Doyle witnessed a new mood of optimism take hold in Nigeria. This was his report:

This story is unusual. It's good news from Africa. That's worth saying again: This is good news from Africa. What's taken place in Nigeria since the death of Sani Abacha is potentially one of the most encouraging developments on the continent since the release from jail of Nelson Mandela.

Mark Doyle reports on the new feelings of freedom
I say "potentially" because almost anything can happen in this huge unwieldy country. But there'll be plenty of time to chronicle the difficulties, if and when they emerge. Now there's something positive happening.

Nigeria elections
I've spent most of the last year covering wars. War in Sierra Leone, war in Guinea Bissau and, most recently, the huge and highly complex war in Congo. At last, there's something good to report, and so very different from my last trip to Nigeria when Abacha was still alive and Nigerians, who are naturally exuberant, were almost cowed into submission by fear of their own government.

Politics for the people

The extent of the change under General Abubakar really hit me at the old parade ground in Nigeria's gleaming new capital, Abuja, which is sited in the symbolic geographic heart of the country. A political party was being launched at the parade ground.

[ image: Nigerians gear up for elections]
Nigerians gear up for elections
In a cacophony of noise and colour, drummers and trumpeters were competing with politicians on the stump. As soon as any of the politicians saw my microphone they sent for me and assailed me with their extravagant political promises. "We will alleviate the suffering of the teeming masses," they shouted. "We will eliminate poverty forever." "We have supporters everywhere," they claimed. "Nigeria will rise up again, corruption will be eliminated. Nigeria, the greatest black nation will lead Africa to the promised land."

Of course no Nigerian believes much of this stuff. They're not naive. Tribalism and corruption are deeply entrenched here. But almost everyone I met was thoroughly enjoying the political process.

They smiled as they watched their politicians dressed in fabulous robes to impress voters with their wealth, or simple smocks, to impress voters with their piety. They consumed acres of news print, which plotted the political alliances being formed and reformed, and they thoroughly approved when General Abdulsalam Abubakar released political prisoners and promised that the army would go back to the barracks.

New mood

It doesn't really matter which political party was being launched at the parade ground that day. It was a freely-formed bone fide civilian political party, which - if all goes according to plan - will contest democratic presidential elections next February. They could be the first truly free elections in Nigeria in almost twenty years.

I was in Abuja partly to attend a press conference given by General Abubakar.

The atmosphere there, compared with the atmosphere generated by the late General Abacha, was like comparing night with day. Instead of a grim looking sick Abacha, complete with forbidding sunglasses, there was a smiling, joking Abubakar who had done his public relations homework and knew the first names of many of the Nigerian journalists present. At the end of the press conference, Abubakar shook hands with every single one of us in turn.

I tried a flyer and asked him if I could do a TV interview with him later this year. "Of course," he smiled, "just see my officials to arrange it." Such informality would have been quite unthinkable under the dour and frankly quite frightening Abacha.

The cost of power

But, and it's a big but, it has to be said that handing over to civilians will not in itself solve Nigeria's fundamental problems. It's always dangerous to simplify, but one of the problems goes something like this.

Nigeria has great mineral wealth, producing about the same amount of oil as Kuwait. This means central government is very rich, even if the vast majority of the people are very poor. In a country where corruption is entrenched, political power means access to oil money.

There are some honest politicians in Nigeria, but any Nigerian will tell you there aren't very many. The honest ones, coming typically from human rights groups or other parts of civil society, don't tend to get involved in politics at the national level. It's simply too expensive to mount a winning national campaign for anyone but the old guard corrupt politicians.

Now, added to this money dilemma, is the tribal dilemma. Because of an accident of colonialism, three major ethnic groups have been grafted together to form Nigeria. If local, tribally based politics were allowed, tribal tensions would almost certainly rise and a highly dangerous situation could develop.

Because of this danger, successive administrations have insisted that all political parties must have a national spread and must never campaign on tribal or religious grounds. On the face of it, this is very sensible. But it also means that small-scale community politics, potentially the most honest kind, is virtually excluded from the national equation.

But only the intellectuals, the Nigerian chattering classes, bother much with dilemmas like these. Ordinary people are mostly celebrating now because the soldiers are leaving power. Prisoners are being released.

The political bandwagon is rolling. And, after a long period of repression, Nigerians can breath again.

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