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Nigeria: Signs In Favor Of Democratization Are Hopeful

Prague, 9 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, takes first place in the world in at least one respect: an international survey of businessmen recently voted it the most corrupt nation on the planet.

With its 100 million people, its simmering ethnic tensions, its vast oil wealth, its contrasts of rich and poor, and its powerful cultural life, Nigeria is a colorful and often dangerous country ruled by a secretive Military Council.

Now sudden death has split the ranks of the military: strongman General Sani Abacha has died of a heart attack at the age of 54. The Military Council acted almost immediately to fill the power vacuum, appointing a quiet, bespectacled general, Abdusalam Abubakar, as the new military ruler.

A man who has stayed out of the limelight, Abubakar -- a Muslim -- is regarded as a moderate. A professional soldier, he has not previously held high political office. But is he the man to restore democracy to his country? Nigeria has spent most of its time under the military since it gained independence from Britain in 1960.

The signs in favor of democratization are at least hopeful, says Martin Plaut, an associate of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

He says that's because international pressure for democratization has built up very considerably, and even more importantly the pressure from inside the country has been mounting for some time. It was coming to a head in any case because of the approaching third anniversary this month of the last presidential election -- which was annulled by the military. Therefore both because of internal and external pressure there is every indication that there is at least a hope of a return to democracy now.

However, Plaut says one must be cautious. Nigeria has spent only six or seven years under civilian rule since it gained independence. From one standpoint it could therefore be argued that Nigeria has shown in practical terms that it needs a military hand at the helm. He says that despite all the difficulties, including ethnic tensions, most Nigerians appear attached to their nationhood, and there seems little sign that the country will erupt into violence.

On the international scene, the United States has urged Nigerians to use the present moment for a genuine transition to democracy. The European Union and South Africa, a country which itself achieved democracy only in recent years, have done likewise.

Whatever political course Nigeria takes, any government will have a bumpy ride. Nigeria gains 97 percent of its foreign earnings from oil, and the slump in oil prices has hit it hard. Per capital gross national product is only about $270, and the country is deeply indebted. The government puts the debt at $27 billion, but international lenders say the real figure is higher. The African economic analyst with the Deutsche Morgan Grenfell investment advisers, Bernhard Schultz, explains the problems. Nothing will change immediately with the new government: the country is doing badly at the moment. They have big problems handling their debt. These difficulties are partly of long duration and partly caused by the downturn in oil prices. The past military governments have held to a relatively tight budgetary and monetary policy, but that has now struck difficulties also because of the oil problem. But it was more a military-style budget than one which relates to the development needs of the country.

Schultz notes that the military through the years have not shown any particular abilities in managing the economy. He notes that the government has been preparing a reform plan designed to streamline economic growth. He says, as many have said, that Nigeria is the potential economic powerhouse of Africa.

But realizing that potential has always been Nigeria's problem, and that is something which is unlikely to change soon.