Nigeria celebrates ascension of democracy

Populous African nation ends years of military rule


ABUJA, Nigeria -- In an exuberant ceremony of martial music and marches, Nigeria's military ruler turned over power to an elected leader yesterday, opening an era of civilian government in the nation where one in six Africans lives.

Seconds after he was handed a copy of Nigeria's 24-day-old Constitution and 20 years after he stepped down as its military ruler, Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired general, was sworn in as president.

After the ceremony, in a symbolic retirement of the military from politics, the outgoing head of state, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, was escorted in a motorcade by the military's highest-ranking officers to his hometown of Minna, about 75 miles west of the capital.

Speaking in English, the one common language in a country with as many as 400 ethnic groups and languages, Obasanjo declared the day the "beginning of a genuine renaissance" in Nigeria.

"Today we are taking a decisive step on the path of democracy," said Obasanjo, 62. "We will leave no stone unturned to ensure sustenance of democracy, because it is good for us, it is good for Africa, and it is good for the world."

Abubakar became only the second general to give up power voluntarily in Nigeria's postcolonial history. Obasanjo was the first, in 1979, but the civilian rule that followed lasted only until 1983. The military had ruled since then.

"This day, May 29, 1999, must rank second only to Oct. 1, 1960," Abubakar said, mentioning the day on which Nigeria gained its independence from Britain, whose colonial officers cobbled together patches of land in West Africa to create Nigeria in 1914.

Yesterday was a day awaited with excitement as well as anxiety since last July, when Abubakar announced that the generals who have ruled Nigeria for all but 10 years since 1960 would finally relinquish power. And it ushered in a period of cautious optimism that an elected government would address the myriad political, social and economic problems that, at several points in the last year, pushed this restive nation of 110 million people to the edge of chaos.

The handover -- long promised, often postponed -- registered immediately on many levels. It means that Africa's most populous nation, the nation with the largest black population in the world, now lives under a government of its choice. It means that one of Africa's big powers, just one year ago an international pariah led by a ruthless dictator, the late Gen. Sani Abacha, is now headed by a man respected and welcomed elsewhere on this continent and in the West.

After yesterday, most of the top-ranking military officers holding political positions are expected to retire as a younger generation of officers assumes control of the military. Political control of Nigeria will shift to civilians elected in four elections over the last six months: officials in 774 local governments; governors representing the 36 states; state lawmakers, as well as national ones, whose approval Obasanjo will need for decisions including forming his Cabinet.

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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