Transition in Nigeria

August 29, 1993

Now that Ibriham Babangida has ceremonially stepped down as president of Nigeria one day before the deadline he set himself, the 90 million Nigerians are trying to figure out if he really did. Opposition politicians, suppressed journalists and striking workers who have paralyzed Lagos and interrupted oil exports believe he really kept power behind a fresh facade.

General Babangida handed authority to a council of his own choosing, headed by a businessman he had installed, Ernest Shonekan, whose task previously was to clean up corruption and reform the economy as demanded by the International Monetary Fund. Now he has to organize an election by next year to produce a legitimate president.

General Babangida did not approve of the apparent winner of the last election he arranged, Moshood Abiola, who is flying around the world building support and threatening to return to Nigeria to establish a counter-government.

Although General Babangida authorized Mr. Abiola as one of two acceptable candidates in the June election, his approved role was as loser. There is little doubt Mr. Abiola won. It is widely thought General Babangida and military colleagues from the Hausa and Fulani tribes of Muslims in the north were unable to accept as president a Yoruba from the southwest, even a Muslim.

So it is significant that Mr. Shonekan is also a Yoruba, from Mr. Abiola's home town. Three of the military strongmen in General Babangida's circle are in the ruling council, raising doubt whether Mr. Shonekan is really in charge.

Nigeria's army is trying to play a responsible role in bringing peace and stability to Liberia. The generals understand the harm that ambition, tribal conflict and anarchy do. Nigeria is so much bigger, richer and more diverse than Liberia, the stakes are that much higher.

General Babangida spent eight years promising a genuine transition to democracy. Mr. Shonekan should make good on the general's promise.

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