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


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.

Obasanjo, who headed a military regime from 1976 to 1979, may have changed his general's uniform and cap for the traditional collarless, knee-length shirt and pillbox hat, but his army background bothers his opponents.

They suspect that he will be a stooge of the military.

Obasanjo has broad support from the retired top brass. The local Campaign for Democracy this week reminded voters of the political repression under his leadership in the 1970s before he became the first African military leader to cede power to a civilian government.

Since he left the army, he has embraced democracy, free markets and women's rights, and has established an international reputation as an activist for the cause of peace and disarmament, particularly in Africa.

His supporters argue that it will take a military man to keep the army from staging another coup, a constant threat from an officer corps trained to rule.

The military head of state, Abubakar, who called these elections, reportedly used revenues from an oil-price increase late last year to give hefty retirement benefits to get potential old guard troublemakers out of uniform.

"The danger is not now from the top brass," said a Western diplomat who requested anonymity. "There is probably some chance of something bad happening from junior officers who want their own time filling their own pockets. If that happens, I don't think you could hold Nigeria together any more."

'Ease the generals out'

In an apparent effort to avoid unnerving the army, Obasanjo has been careful to rule out any mass investigation of military corruption, while leaving open the possibility of individual trials.

"The only thing we can do is use a strategy to ease the generals out," said Chief Olu Bakare, leader of the Isheri Olufin community outside of Lagos and organizing secretary for Obasanjo's PDP in Lagos state. "We can't force them out. If we tried to force them out, there would be a revolution.

"We want to put somebody in there who understands their techniques," he said. "If you want to restructure the army, it is only a military man who can do it."

Adebayo Adesokan, 42, who works in his father's import-export firm in Lagos, is not convinced. He intends to vote for Falae.

"We are tired of the military in any form, whether in khaki or civilian dress," said the father of three, standing beside a polling station in a middle-class district of Ikeja, the capital of Lagos state.

"They have destroyed the economy of this country," he said. "They have destroyed the culture of this country. There is no light, no water, no roads, no telephones, nothing whatsoever, nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing, nothing. For years we have been destroyed. This is the only opportunity for us to get rid of them."

Pondering the priorities of the new president, Pat Utomi, lecturer at the Lagos Business School and an Obasanjo economic adviser, said: "First of all, he has to tell Nigerians the truth. The biggest problem that the new government faces is it is going to have a population which has great expectations."

As if on cue, Kehind Adewole, after casting his vote in Saturday's provincial elections, confirmed this.

"I want joblessness to go as soon as the new government comes in," he said. "Then, the scarcity of things should stop. Then, the money should circulate. I want education for our children. They are the future.

"And then, the poor masses should come to enjoy themselves as they were enjoying themselves in the old days."

Chronicling the election campaign and the impending departure of the generals have been the reporters and editors of the Guardian, the country's largest independent newspaper.

"The people want a clean break with the military," said Akpo Esajere, the political editor. "But that's not possible.

"The military will have some kind of role. They are part of this society, the most functional and coordinated part of our society. The issue is not whether we need them or not. The issue is -- they are survivors."

Harriet Lawrence, a native of Chicago, is the newspaper's deputy editor for news. She has watched the country's decline since coming here with her Nigerian husband 27 years ago.

As she talks in an antiquated editorial room, the electrical power comes and goes, plunging the place into intermittent darkness. The newspaper, she says, has seven generators of its own, used for the nightly print run to guard against paper-ripping outages.

"There's never been a time when there was perfect light," she said. "But it's gotten worse than ever."

A dark pall of diesel smoke, she says, regularly hangs over her smart suburb as wealthy neighbors power up their private generators. Inflation, complains the graduate of Howard University, has undermined earning power.

Even the teachers at her daughters' private school have "gone commercial," she says, demanding payment for unnecessary books.

"Everyone is running some sort of scam," she says.

None more than the generals, she charges. "There are so many generals who are rich, filthy rich. That's the problem we have."

Jide Ogundele, the paper's deputy editor for business and the economy, advances a proposal: "If we could get the money our leaders have stolen and are keeping in accounts in Washington, Geneva, and on all those islands, we would not need one cent from outside."

The estimated value of the generals' thievery is more than $30 billion, equivalent to the country's foreign debt.

As it is, the new Nigerian democracy will need all the assistance and investment it can get from overseas agencies and governments that shied away from extending a helping hand to the generals.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are ready to help. The United States is increasing its aid from $3 million this year to $12 million. Washington would be more generous, but Nigeria, as a center for drug smuggling, has been decertified under the Foreign Assistance Act. This limits U.S. aid to humanitarian and democratization projects.

If prosecutions and extradition orders proceed against three Nigerian drug lords wanted in the United States, Nigeria could be "certified" for foreign assistance this year.

"This place was beautiful," said Lagos University's Olugbemi. "All the achievements have been destroyed. It's a sad story."

Pub Date: 2/26/99

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