Nigerian military scraps vote result, tramples Africa's flowering democracy Frustrated U.S. weighs sanctions

June 24, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government watched in helpless anger yesterday as Nigeria's military government scrapped the transition to democratic rule of Africa's most populous country, dealing a major setback to political progress throughout the continent.

While the Clinton administration threatened to cut aid and chill relations, a senior official said there was little the United States could do to force dictator Ibrahim Babangida to accept the results of recent elections and yield power.

"We don't have many levers there," the official said, noting that Nigeria, a major oil exporter, is wealthy by African standards. "What can someone on the outside say if he's determined to stay in power? There's not much we can do."

The United States is expected to cut off the small amount of military training assistance it provides but will be reluctant to slash the bulk of its $22 million in aid, since that is used largely by nongovernment organizations to help the worst victims of Nigeria's poverty and disease: AIDS victims, women and children.

The administration is considering attempting to block new loans to Nigeria through international financial institutions, but the senior official was not optimistic that the United States could get other donors to cooperate.

"The United States deplores the outrageous decision of Nigeria's military regime to annul the results of the June 12 presidential election and cancel the transition to elected civilian rule," State Department spokesman Mike McCurry said.

"We are now in the process of reassessing our relations with Nigeria," Mr. McCurry said, adding that "all aspects of our bilateral relations" are "currently under review." He indicated the United States might seek action from the Security Council.

Britain, which ruled the west African nation before its independence in 1960, hinted it might break diplomatic relations.

The Democratic administration, which has made democracy and human rights a pillar of its foreign policy, also has vowed to pay much more attention than its predecessors to Africa, a continent plagued by authoritarian governments, civil wars, drought and economic decline.

In a recent speech, Anthony Lake, President Clinton's national security adviser, described Africa's greatness in natural beauty, untapped resources, cultures "and the power of talented peoples yearning for a better future."

"And the progress toward democracy and reform in Africa tells me that future is now much more than a dream," he said.

But while democracy has advanced in Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi and a few other countries, progress across the continent has been countered by renewed civil war in Angola, the continuation of repressive regimes in Zaire and Kenya and continued chaos in Somalia.

In a related development yesterday, Mr. McCurry announced that President Clinton has issued a decree barring the U.S. entry of Zairean officials who have been collaborating with President Mobutu Sese Seko in preventing a transition to democracy in the African country.

General Babangida's action marks "a major setback to the democratic trend," the senior administration official said.

He voiced concern that it "does not set a good example" for South Africa, now in a delicate transition to majority rule. But with negotiations already well advanced in South Africa and a long-established black liberation movement there, "the whole level of discourse and debate is light-years ahead of Nigeria," he said.

In the short term, Nigeria's crisis could provoke turmoil within the country, Mr. McCurry said. Another official predicted "major unrest" among the civilian population of 88.5 million and even within the military.

General Babangida "knows the dangers to the country and himself," the official said.

Explaining its decision to annul the elections, the military government said it was "compelled to take appropriate steps in order to rescue the judiciary from intra-wrangling" and "protect our legal system and the judiciary from being ridiculed and politicized both nationally and internationally." This was a reference to a legal fight resulting from a lawsuit brought by supporters of the government.

The Nigerian government also threatened to impose emergency rule in the face of activists' threats of nationwide strikes and demonstrations.

General Babangida has been president of Nigeria since 1985, but the military has ruled Nigeria since overturning its last civilian government in a 1983 coup. The government earlier promised a return to civilian rule by the end of 1992.

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