The Long Count in Nigeria

June 18, 1993

Nigeria's election was preceded by widespread predictions that military strongman Ibrahim Babangida would not turn over power to an elected civilian on Aug. 27 as he promised. Not for nothing do Nigerians call him "The Great Maradona," after the tricky, sure-footed Argentine soccer star.

So why did he wait so long? The census was held on schedule last year and counted only 88.5 million Nigerians instead of the 110 or more million estimated. The election went forward. Candidates were limited to friends of the general who are Muslims and wealthy businessmen, two of them in all.

Voting took place. There was trouble when a polling official would not let one of the candidates, Bashir Tofa, vote. Moshod Abiola of the Social Democratic Party, the more southern and left-wing candidate, pulled ahead in the results announced by the electoral commission. Mr. Tofa's National Republican Convention cried foul. A third group of the general's friends, calling themselves the Association for a Better Nigeria, begged him to stay in power and sued to stop the count. This brought a court injunction against any further announcement of results by the electoral commission.

Meanwhile, the government kicked out an American diplomat who had undiplomatically insisted the U.S. would not stand for a suspended election. The general is thinking about it. The two parties met and demanded he go through with his timetable. However limited the process, Mr. Abiola appears to have won more votes.

Nigeria is a great country, Africa's most powerful, a major oil exporter. It is the dominant regional power, taking the lead in trying to bring order to Liberia. Despite a secessionist civil war in the 1960s, fierce tribal divisions and Muslim-Christian rivalry that has taken many lives, Nigeria has held together. The army is a big reason why.

But Nigeria has an economy breaking down, a tremendous increase in criminality, a wasted oil bonanza and a worsening climate for investment. It needs tranquillity, law and order, an honest coming-to-grips with the economy and, above all, a consensus on who ought to rule. The country has had only two elected presidencies, the last interrupted by military takeover in 1983. General Babangida arranged his coup two years later, and has delayed a return to civilian rule three times in the past three years.

Is this the fourth time? General Babangida holds the cards. He has options. One is to press a button to restart the counting of votes, and get on with the consequences. He deserves every encouragement, from his fellow world leaders, to do so.

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