Nigeria's new leader faces a pivotal moment Abubakar: General can move toward democracy or renew debilitating tyranny.

July 18, 1998

GEN. Abdulsalam Abubakar faces a choice of two role models. One is Gen. Sani Abacha, the brutal dictator of Nigeria whose death from a heart attack on June 9 elevated General Abubakar to power. The other is Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, the military strongman who restored democracy in 1979. As a critic of corruption and autocracy since, he was imprisoned by General Abacha.

General Abubakar has dismantled the apparatus by which General Abacha was going to hold a bogus election next month, the outcome of which was guaranteed. General Abubakar dismissed his predecessor's discredited cabinet, but not the military council that stands above all. He says he is restoring democracy next year, but has not persuaded the oppositionto participate.

Nigerians pressing for democracy do not trust the military rulers. This was evident in the widespread skepticism about the autopsy finding that the imprisoned civilian opposition leader, Moshood Abiola, died of a heart attack on July 7. His followers believe he was poisoned.

The best hope for a credible transition would have involved Chief Abiola, who had been maintaining that he was president. No other civilian public figure transcends the divisions between Yoruba and Ibo and Hausa and Fulani peoples, between north and south, between Muslim and Christian, as he did.

But General Obasanjo, who was recently released from prison and appears headed for safe exile abroad, does. His desire to rTC send the generals back to the barracks and stem corruption is undoubted.

Democracy means the military leadership that is from the north, Muslim, Hausa or Fulani, must accommodate the wealth and talent of the Yoruba people of the southwest and Ibo of the southeast. It means that opportunity, other than criminal avenues, must be opened for the entrepreneurial talent that abounds. It means that General Abacha's crude attempts to divert wealth to his immediate circle must be reversed. It also means free speech and a free press.

General Abubakar has no easy job, whatever he decides. If he chooses democracy, he must subdue the generals. If he chooses prolonged military rule, he must subdue the people.

Pub Date: 7/18/98

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