Nigeria makes another attempt at transition to democracy Repressive rules limit activity of political parties


LAGOS, Nigeria -- Almost a year after Nigeria's military government announced the latest plan for a transition to democracy, many civilian politicians are back on the streets organizing for national elections scheduled for 1998.

The previous transition, by another military government, ended abruptly in 1993, when the country's military rulers annulled a presidential election widely believed to have been won by Moshood K. Abiola, a businessman now imprisoned.

Ignoring those who are skeptical that the current leader, Gen. Sani Abacha, wants a genuine transition to civilian rule, 18 political groups have responded to the lifting of a three-year ban on party politics in June by organizing political meetings, complete with songs and slogans about democracy.

Even some members of the main umbrella opposition group, the National Democratic Coalition, who have long campaigned on an anti-government platform, have joined the race to form parties.

But on the streets of Lagos it is hard to find anyone who has much faith in the transition process, or anyone who professes an interest in it.

People shake their heads when asked if a party has tried to recruit them, and some laugh at the suggestion that elections will take place in two years' time.

"Even if they do," said Osita Okechukwu, a public relations consultant, "there is not much hope that something will come out of it.

"There is a bankruptcy of ideology; the new politicians are afraid to criticize the incumbent government."

Those who oppose the military rulers and distrust their promises are unrepresented.

Nigeria's main opposition leaders are in jail, and the political organizations they left behind have fragmented.

The government has set stringent conditions for groups to qualify as parties.

Initially, would-be parties were given two months to recruit at least 40,000 members from each of the West African country's 30 states.

Another requirement was that each new member, even those from the most remote parts of Nigeria, carry a party card bearing a photograph.

After many complaints, the government, which sees its transition plan as crucial to easing Nigeria's isolation, has revised its registration timetable to give the political groups time to merge -- though the photograph requirement remains.

"It is an impossible condition to fulfill," Buba Galadima, who belongs to a new political grouping called the All Nigerian Congress, said of the party membership photos.

Many politicians acknowledge that they have ignored it.

Some analysts worry that if all groups fail to meet the requirements, the government can decide which it will allow to function and which it will ban.

During local elections in March, the first stage of Abacha's transition program, hundreds of elected candidates were disqualified.

This produced an outcry that the government was merely excluding its opponents.

The authorities insisted that the politicians had been banned on technical grounds.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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