Lagos, Nigeria. -- In a nation that has spent 23 of the 33 years since independence under military rulers, the current attempt at democratic elections has yet to convince people it will lead to civilian rule.
General Ibrahim Babangida, faced with the drastic plunge of the naira in less than three years to one twentieth of its value, has presided over the crumbling of living standards even though the country pumps nearly 2 million barrels of oil per day.
Nationwide strikes by civil servants unable to feed and house their families paralyzed schools for the past two months and in February shut hospitals, water, electric supplies and other public services. A promised 45 percent hike in wages restored some federal services but left state governments begging for funds to match the hikes.
"We are afraid -- the country is not good. Food prices are too high and there is no ethnic peace," said Wahabi Lawal, a bus driver in Ibadan.
A neighbor of his in the densely populated Mapo Hill section of Nigeria's second largest city said that his $15 per month salary as a ministry of health stock clerk is barely enough to feed his children. "I blame the president and the state governor. I voted for him once. But no more."
In November, General Babangida, who seized power in 1986, suspended long-promised elections and aborted the transition to civilian rule. He barred the 23 competing presidential candidates from politics amid reports that his carefully created system of two political parties -- one slightly to left and the other slightly to the right -- had turned into a back-stabbing free-for-all of vote and influence buying.
What reportedly appalled the military was that the candidate most likely to buy the top office of Africa's most populous nation -- General Shehu Yar'Adua -- was reported to be spending money donated by Libya's Muammar el Kadafi.
President Babingida insisted, however, that civilian democracy was only delayed by the suspension and he charted a new series of primary elections to select presidential candidates by March 29 and hold elections leading to the retun to civilian rule on August 27.
Indeed, ward and local party votes took place Feb. 6 and 20, to begin to winnow down the 215 "aspirants" who have filed applications to run for president.
Lately full page advertisements have appeared in the government-owned Daily Times, urging General Babangida to remain for the sake of "unity, peace and stability."
It is true that hundreds, perhaps thousands, have died since last year in rioting by fundamentalist Muslims in the North; and in ethnic clashes between Christian Yorubas and Ibos pitted against Muslim Hausa and Faulanis, two closely related tribes.
Tension among the three groups is so high that the government recently announced it would not release the results of its first census in years until December -- long after any elections are to be consummated. Northern Hausas such as President Babangida have long controlled the government of Nigeria and claim to be the most populous of the three dominant groups. But some say the sparsely-populated arid northern states are unlikely to hold as many people as the dense, humid zones of Yorubaland and Iboland in the West and East.
In the late 1960s, an Ibo independence movement was crushed in the Biafran War that left perhaps a million dead of war and famine. Despite the unifying English language and British-installed roads and administration binding the three peoples together, many fear that one day Nigeria could become another Bosnia or Sudan -- where Christians and Muslims are fighting bloody civil wars.
A surprise favorite in the election seems to be Nigeria's richest man -- Chief Moshood Abiola -- who flies around Nigeria campaigning in a luxurious British-registered and -staffed jet originally built for England's royal family.
A self-made man who rose from poverty by selling firewood and playing music to pay school fees, Mr. Abiola became wealthy on government contracts to supply communications gear. Despite doubts about the sources of his fabulous wealth, he has donated millions of the profits from his newspapers, farms, airline, shipping company and other ventures into sports, education and other populist causes.
On a recent swing through the North and East, Mr. Abiola showed his homespun philosophy to the Hausa elders of his Social Democratic Party: "I employ your children, I bury your dead, I weep with you. I am one of you." Although a Muslim, he is a Yoruba from the South and faces strong opposition from the Hausas.
And at a dinner where local laborers asked to see him, Mr. Abiola led them in a Muslim prayer with hands turned up to the sky. Without missing a single beat he went on to lead them in the Christian Lord's Prayer, still holding his hands out in the Muslim gesture.
The question, however, is not whether Mr. Abiola can win in a fair election. It is whether General Babangida will allow him or any other civilian to succeed him.
"The political system is designed to fail," say many people, offering the ideal excuse for the military to remain in power.
With a vibrant press fielding perhaps a dozen dailies -- even though most are government-owned, as are radio and television stations -- and with a vibrant tradition of free enterprise in the sprawling markets of Kano, Kaduna, Ibadan, Lagos and most other cities and towns, Nigeria does not feel like it is under the boot of military repression.
But as average annual income fell from about $1,200 in the early 1980s to about $250 in 1992, a sense of desperation has set in. Workers pass hours each day waiting for transport and spend most of their increasingly worthless salaries on carfare and food.
It is widely believed that due to corruption and mismanagement the oil income during the years when a barrel sold for up to $40 was squandered on government buildings, stolen or spent on imported food that helped drive Nigerian farmers out of business.
Today most politicians campaign on pledges to seek to limit payment of the crushing debt. Mr. Abiola is also leading a drive to exact $400 billion in reparations from America and England for slavery and colonial abuses.
But with widespread complaints that corruption has destroyed the effectiveness of the government, the wealthy barricade themselves behind glass-shard-topped walls supplied with personal electric generators, water trucks and cellular phones. Meanwhile the rest of the country sweats without fans, phones ** or hope in the sudden darkness of the power outages.
Ben Barber, a free-lance writer, recently returned from Nigeria.