Nigeria's new chance, led by a new general Death of Abacha: Resource-rich country needs to escape corruption and dictatorship.

June 10, 1998

NIGERIA, a pariah suspended by the Commonwealth of Nations and denounced by Nelson Mandela, has a new start. The rapid choice of an interim strongman to replace the brutal and corrupt strongman, Gen. Sani Abacha, who died of an

apparent heart attack on Monday, headed off drift and anarchy.

With more than 100 million people and massive oil exports, Nigeria is Africa's most populous country and potentially one of its wealthiest. It has an efficient army that has imposed democracy elsewhere in West Africa while preventing it at home.

Maj. Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, the chief of staff who was chosen by the military council to succeed General Abacha before demands for civilian rule could gain momentum, is a recent arrival at the top of the heap. He is not flamboyant and is regarded as competent. While not known for wealth or corruption, he is a protege of the former president, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, as well as of General Abacha.

The new regime can end Nigeria's pariah status by moving against corruption in the oil industry and elsewhere, and by using the Aug. 1 scheduled election to begin a transition to democracy. It had been called to elect General Abacha as president unopposed.

The new regime can signal change by freeing three notable political prisoners. They are Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military ruler who really did launch a transition to civilian democracy; Moshood Abiola, the businessman who was winning the 1993 election before the count was aborted; and Gen. Oladipyo Diya, who was General Abacha's deputy before the ruler decided he was plotting a coup and had him condemned to death.

After that, the regime should invite home -- and allow to speak freely -- such distinguished exiles as Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate author, and Ken Wiwa, son of the executed dissident Ken Saro-Wiwa.

What this means is that Nigeria must cease to be an empire of the northern Islamic army over the more entrepreneurial, educated, Christian south. The country can work only if all its major ethnicities share proprietorship.

That requires free speech and representative government.

Only under such conditions can corruption be rooted out and Nigeria's great potential be freed to develop.

! Pub date: 6/10/98

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