Military ponders future after Nigerian election

Observers say army wants power transfer

February 27, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABUJA, Nigeria -- In the headquarters of one of this country's crack army units, a young captain ponders his future under the civilian government that Nigerians will vote in today.

"It's a relief," he says as he contemplates the end of almost three decades of military rule. "We are living in shame. We are in disgrace."

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is hopeful that the officer's views reflect those of his comrades.

"My belief is that the overwhelming number of military leaders are committed to the transfer of power to civilian government," he said.

Observers from the Atlanta-based Carter Center and the Washington-based National Democratic Institute will fan out with other international and national monitors to many of the 110,000 polling stations across the country to watch today's voting for a civilian president.

Administrative failures and potential fraud were seen here in ballots for local, provincial and national assembly elections in recent weeks.

Carter, a veteran election monitor since his departure from the White House, said: "At the end of this process, the will of the majority of the Nigerian people will be accurately expressed in the outcome of the election, and there will be a transfer of power of these elected leaders."

The national hatred of the Nigerian military and international disgust with it persuaded the head of state, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, to return the government to civilian rule through today's election.

The presidential front-runner is former Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, leader of the Peoples Democratic Party, who led the military regime between 1976 and 1979 and is presenting himself as a democrat who can be trusted.

Running against him is Chief Olu Falae, a former finance minister in a military regime who says he can rebuild the collapsed economy. He also claims to represent a clean break with the generals.

Both candidates were imprisoned for their pro-democracy activities by Gen. Sani Abacha, who died last year. He was the most ruthless and corrupt of Nigeria's dictators.

Speaking this week about whether he would investigate military corruption, Obasanjo said: "I am not a president just to probe. I am a president to do what needs to be done."

Obasanjo appeared to be reassuring the military that there would be no general "witch hunt," while leaving him -- if he wins today's vote -- with the option of making examples of individual officers guilty of major abuse.

Professor Stephen Olugbemi, head of the department of political science at the University of Lagos, endorsed the Obasanjo approach.

"If you get into a probe [of corruption], you are going to turn the whole country inside out, including the bureaucracy. There are civilians who are worse than even the military."

According to Pat Utomi, an economic adviser to Obasanjo, less than 5 percent of the military's top leadership is corrupt.

"It's a very small group, and a good part of the military is resentful of that group," said Utomi. "The younger officers are as upset with their thieving bosses as people on the street are."

At the military base here, the captain suggested that corruption was largely confined to officers who found themselves in political positions, such as heads of contract agencies, where they were able to line their pockets.

"Everybody gets the blame, but when you start screening you will find it is only a few," he said. "There are many retired generals who don't have good houses or good cars."

Ordinary members of the Nigerian army have been silent about the charges laid against them as their future is redefined by Abubakar and the nation's voters. Without chain-of-command approval -- which he said would not be given -- the captain insisted on anonymity before describing the atmosphere in the barracks on the eve of the election.

He spoke in his cluttered office in a white-walled block inside the main guard post of the headquarters here. He asserted that his close relationship with his fellow officers enabled him to reflect the general view in his brigade.

"What I'm telling you is what we think," he said. "Good governance in a sovereign state should take care of the military problem," he said.

"The whole blame is put on the military for killing the economic system of the country," he said. "The political system is bad, and the social life is not there any more.

"But other players are involved. The civilians are contributory. They looted together with the generals."

The "loot," stolen during the 28 years of military rule in the 38 years since Nigeria gained its independence from Britain, is estimated at up to $30 billion, equivalent to the national debt.

"We accept the blame, which is not entirely our own," said the captain. "Society should share the blame. If the generals are to be prosecuted, the civilians who assisted them should also be prosecuted. The civilians were the custodians of the money.

"To be honest, we didn't do what we should have done," he said. "We were to have picked this place up from the dust. We didn't do that. The military allowed itself to be used as the instrument of destruction.

"We projected an image that led people to regard the military as being unable to offer any good governance."

He attributed the recurring military coups here to jealousy and greed, as one group of officers saw another getting rich and wanted their turn at the trough.

"That's how the military has worked. You take, you take, you take," he said.

"Today we are separate [from the rest of society] because we are living in disgrace.

"Now we are really tired of ruling. If you have the country at heart, you want the country to move forward. You look at how the country can move forward.

"The military now is happy for this election. It will be a relief to go back to our barracks."

Pub Date: 2/27/99

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