Nigeria gets assistance in move to democracy European Union lifts sanctions

Mandela backs return to civilian rule

October 31, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

ABUJA, Nigeria -- Nigeria's attempt to move from military dictatorship toward democracy got two significant boosts yesterday, one from South African President Nelson Mandela, the other from the European Union.

The 15-member EU, meeting in Brussels, Belgium, lifted its 3-year-old diplomatic sanctions as a means of encouraging Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, Nigeria's leader, to return the country to civilian rule.

Nigeria -- the world's sixth largest supplier of crude oil -- should be one of Africa's most influential and affluent countries. But years of corrupt and despotic rule have bankrupted Africa's most populous nation. The United States imports $6 billion in oil each year from Nigeria, and depends on its troops to deal with unrest in places such as Sierra Leone and Liberia that otherwise could embroil American soldiers.

The United States has backed Abubakar's moves toward democracy, but now Mandela, the continent's democratic icon, is also voicing support. Mandela completed his first trip to the country by praising Abubakar's plan to turn over power to an elected government, calling it a "courageous step by a man of true vision."

"I want to convey to my friend and host our joy at the opening of the way to restoring democracy in Nigeria," Mandela said yesterday in Nigeria.

Abubakar, a career soldier who has led the nation since the June 8 death of the despotic Gen. Sani Abacha, also took the podium and related the changes he has made since taking office.

Political prisoners have been released, he said, media restrictions have been eased, anti-labor laws have been repealed, a draft of the new constitution is to be published next week, nine nationwide political parties have been registered, local elections are scheduled in five weeks and a presidential ballot is set for February.

"The new civilian administration will take office May 29, 1999, and I'm looking forward to having them around," Abubakar said.

Yet Abubakar is not without critics. Ethnic groups in the oil-rich southern part of the nation say he has done little to resolve ethnic divisions there.

Pub Date: 10/31/98

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