Ballot balancing act

Nigerians: Despite their eagerness for democracy, voters are wary of inspiring yet another military coup.

February 26, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

IKORODU, Nigeria -- For the fourth and final time, Kehind Adewole will wait in the tropical sun tomorrow to vote an end to military rule, joining millions of his countrymen in an act they hope will save this most populous African nation.

The transition from army dictatorship to civilian democracy here has been a carefully paced process, and Adewole has participated in each step.

First, the civil servant and father of three went to the polling station on the veranda of an ornate but dowdy green house at Ogunsanya and Alison streets to elect a local council for this down-at-its-heels township Dec. 5.

On Jan. 9, he was back to elect a provincial governor. Next came the national assembly elections last weekend. And, finally, he will be here again tomorrow to make the most important choice of all -- a new national president.

"Nobody wants the military," says 43-year-old Adewole. "We are fed up with them."

With Nigeria on the brink of economic collapse and regional fragmentation, these elections could be the country's last chance to avoiding a break-up which would threaten stability in a west African region already plagued by civil wars in Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau.

American interest here goes beyond the Clinton administration's promotion of democracy around the world. Nigeria supplies 8 percent of U.S. oil and 16 percent of Canada's, most of it for home-heating fuel. The oil-producing Delta region is so volatile that last weekend's elections there had to be postponed because security could not be guaranteed.

The elections were called by Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, who became chief of the military regime after the death last year of Gen. Sani Abacha, one of the most ruthless and greedy of Nigeria's dictators. Abacha's five-year rule heaped suffering on the people and hatred on the army, provoking international demands for reform and persuading Abubakar it was time for the military to return to their barracks.

For most of the 39 years since Nigeria's 1960 independence from Britain, generals haveruled here. What they haven't mismanaged they have misappropriated. Those who opposed them paid a heavy price -- some with their lives, others with exile, many with prison and most in penury.

The military plunged this potentially rich nation, one with vast oil and mineral resources, into poverty and debt, holding most of its estimated 108 million people in fear and drudgery.

Evidence of the generals' ineptitude is everywhere to be seen or sensed: the reality of decay and the atmosphere of depression; the daily struggle for survival against the odds and amid the squalor; long lines for gasoline in a country whose oil resources are twice its national needs; power outages that keep the lights across the landscape flickering on and off like a Christmas tree's.

Reforms promised

This is the legacy of muddle and misery the generals leave for the new president, to be chosen this weekend at 110,000 polling stations -- some monitored by international observers -- throughout the country, from the near-desert savanna of the north to the mangrove swamps of the south.

Favored to win is former-dictator-turned-democrat Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, 61, leader of the Peoples Democratic Party.

He has campaigned on the promise to make Nigeria "great" again, a daunting challenge in a country whose plight has been worsened by the collapse of the price of oil, its major resource.

Obasanjo's only opponent is Chief Olu Falae, 60, a former finance minister and bank executive running as the single candidate of two smaller parties -- his own Alliance for Democracy and the All Peoples Party.

Both men served in military regimes -- Obasanjo as head of state, Falae as a technocrat.

Both were imprisoned by the generals -- Obasanjo, sentenced to death, then 15 years in prison for treason; Falae detained 18 months without trial for alleged bomb-throwing. Both are from the Yoruba tribe in the south.

The election has been fought along tribal and regional lines, leaving the two Yorubas to woo the Hausa and Fulani in the north and the Igbo to the east.

Obasanjo has been distrusted by his own southern people since, as departing military head of state in 1979, he gave a close-called election to a northerner. His strength lies in the north, stronghold of the military elite.

Falae appears set to carry the majority of Yoruba votes, but he is little-known outside his own area.

Elections are rare in Nigeria. Political parties tend to be formed quickly whenever the military chooses to relinquish power and are disbanded just as quickly when it grabs it again.

The winners of the country's three previous regional elections, according to Professor Stephen Olugbemi, head of the political science department at the University of Lagos, came from the party representing the widest political coalition. Obasanjo's PDP won a clear majority in last weekend's national assembly elections.

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