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Monday, December 7, 1998 Published at 11:13 GMT

Nigeria steps towards democracy

General Abdulsalami Abubakar: Will the military this time bring change?

By Lagos Correspondent Barnaby Phillips

Nigeria's elections to local councils on Saturday were the first stage of a transition process due to culminate next May with the instalment of a democratically-elected civilian president.

Although there are many potential pitfalls on the way, there is now a refreshing air of optimism in this giant African country.

[ image:  ]
The Reverend Jesse Jackson, visiting Nigeria last month as a special envoy of President Bill Clinton, said: "After the long midnight, we see signs of daylight emerging".

The Reverend Jackson was referring to the dark days of the former regime of General Sani Abacha, who died of a heart attack in June of this year.

Suspended from the Commonwealth and isolated by sanctions because of human rights abuses, General Abacha's regime was infamous for its corruption and oppressive methods.

The transformation since General Abacha's death has been remarkable.

Liberty dawns

His successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, has released dozens of political prisoners and encouraged exiles to return home.

[ image: Ordinary Nigerians have gone through a turbulent history of military coups]
Ordinary Nigerians have gone through a turbulent history of military coups
A UN special envoy on human rights, Soli Sorabjee, concluded a nine day tour of the country this week by observing that there is now "a willingness on the Nigerian government's behalf to open up and accept criticism".

Mr Sorabjee, who was prevented from visiting Nigeria under the Abacha regime, said that he had been given "unrestricted access to every person he wanted to meet, and to every place he wanted to visit".

General Abubakar has also introduced a credible transition programme, overseen by an independent national electoral commission, which will oversee a series of elections between now and late February.

Nobody is expecting that the electoral process will be flawless. October's voter registration was poorly organised, and many Nigerians complained that they were unable to register.

But, so far, most observers agree that the military itself has not been interfering with the process.

Of course, if by February a presidential front-runner has emerged with whom the military are distinctly uncomfortable, that could change.

"Whoever the next president is, he will have to be very careful with the military, and very sensitive to their needs", said one African diplomat in the commercial capital, Lagos.

Acting cautiously

General Abubakar himself appears aware that to push through reforms too quickly may be dangerous.

[ image: Under General Abacha Nigeria was an international pariah]
Under General Abacha Nigeria was an international pariah
The UN Special Envoy, Mr Sorabjee, complained that many of the repressive decrees which the military has used to rule Nigeria are still in place, despite repeated promises that they are about to be repealed.

General Abubakar has also delayed taking some tough economic decisions. International financial institutions have repeatedly called for the scrapping of the dual exchange rate, seen as an easy mechanism for massive corruption open to those in positions of influence.

Oil provides Nigeria with an estimated 90 per cent of its export earnings; but falling global prices have hit hard. So too has unrest in the impoverished Niger delta, where the oil is produced.

After a series of flow stations were shut down in October after being taken over by youths of the ethnic Ijaw group, Nigeria's total oil output fell by about one third.

The signs of misrule are obvious. Its most spectacular, and ironic manifestation is the fuel crisis.

'A national embarrassment'

Nigeria's four oil refineries are in various states of disrepair. Despite being one of the world's largest oil producing nations, it has to rely on imports.

General Abubakar has described the situation as a "national embarrassment".

Critics of military rule, like Ayo Obe, president of the Civil Liberties Organisation, now accuse the soldiers of just wanting to get out of power fast, regardless of the consequences.

She says: "They seem to think they can just leave the mess behind them for the civilians to clean up".

It is true that Nigerians often seem doomed not to learn from the mistakes of the past.

But the dramatic, and unexpected change in the country's political fortunes this year has at least made hope for the future a realistic proposition.

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