Nigeria's Uncrowned Winner

June 30, 1993

It turned out that the people of Nigeria who voted for a president June 12 took it seriously and did not want the dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, to suspend the result. The labor strike and lawyers' strike and other signs of protest still building steam appeared to take him by surprise.

President Babangida promised to turn power over to an elected civilian president on Aug. 27. He held an election for president, limited to two candidates acceptable to him, one of whom won. Others of his friends went to court to get the count suspended. Then he suspended the election. Then, in retreat, he said he would hold another election, with those two candidates ineligible.

Part of the problem might be that the wrong candidate won. That is the problem with many elections, and observers called this one the cleanest Nigeria has had since independence in 1960. The ostensibly wrong winner is Moshood Abiola, a publishing and transportation tycoon. What's wrong with him, apparently, is that he is a Muslim from the south while Nigeria is customarily ruled by Muslims from the north.

Mr. Abiola and his Social Democratic Party claim to have won 58 percent of the vote and 19 of the 30 states, over Bashir Toba, a millionaire banker, in the count that has not been made public. If that is true, Mr. Abiola should become president on Aug. 27 and all Nigerians of good faith should get about the business of transition.

There cannot be economic regeneration without stability, or stability without legitimacy, and Mr. Abiola is the closest to legitimacy that Nigeria is going to get. General Babangida said that he would turn over power to an elected president and now there is little doubt who that president must be. The general should get on with it.

Nigeria is a great country of nearly 90 million people, with strong traditions, oil wealth and an efficient army. It is the natural leader of West Africa, perhaps of the entire continent, a nation that has survived civil war, prevailed over recurrent religious and tribal divisions and retained some loyalty to the stabilizing parliamentary practices it inherited from imperial Britain and applied to its own circumstances. It deserves better than to be ruled by generals who seize power in their own interest, like General Babangida.

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