Nigeria tries democracy Abubakar plan: Sounds good, but keeping military in charge of transition invites skepticism.

July 27, 1998

THE WORLD should take Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar's pledge to restore democracy to Nigeria at face value. Dissidents in Africa's most populous country, accustomed to military strongmen's brutality and duplicity, will not.

General Abubakar, who found himself the ruler of the oil-producing country after the June 9 death of dictator Sani Abacha, has laid out a commendable transition to democracy. Abacha-appointed officials were dismissed, political parties created to support him were dissolved and political prisoners were released.

Elections will be held in early 1999. The military council means to hand over power May 29. War is declared on the corruption that canceled Nigeria's prosperity.

What's wrong with this picture, to Nigerians who have long sought political rights, is that the military junta is drawing it. The general repudiated the notion of an interim government of national unity. The civilian who might have brought credibility to it, the imprisoned Moshood Abiola, died July 7. So discredited is the military regime that leading Nigerians refuse to believe a reputable autopsy finding of heart attack.

The world community can help General Abubakar keep his commitment. That means ending travel bans and suspending sanctions. Undoubtedly, some officers resist the commitment to hand over power. Even without a transitional unity regime, the XTC general can invite dissidents to advise and observe.

Former Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, released from prison and now in exile, could confer credibility. He is a former strongman who restored democracy 19 years ago. No civilian commands the respect of the late Chief Abiola, but an array of rights campaigners would do. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's offer to help organize fair elections should be accepted.

General Abubakar is probably sincere. But convincing foreign regimes of that is not enough. Military leaders have alienated Nigeria's population. It is General Abubakar's obligation to regain trust, not the people's to offer it.

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