Nigeria's democracy survives first test; Elections: Military-political elite still in charge, need to spread wealth, convince people new era is real.


SKEPTICISM greeted the pledge of democracy that Nigeria's Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar made after succeeding the military dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, who died of a heart attack last June.

Between last Saturday's smooth election of a new parliament and today's election of a president, General Abubakar has been good to his word. He kept the faith with international creditors, let people out of prison, allowed active politics and ran a fair election.

That said, the true task of restoring democracy and the economy in Africa's most populous and potentially greatest country has just begun. Credibility will take time. Nigerians have been through this before.

The parliamentary election was honest, but turnout was disappointing among voters still doubtful of its meaning. Not all the political prisoners have been released. Things are better, not perfect.

It was 20 years ago that the military ruler of that day, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, restored democracy and retired to private life. More recently, he was a critic and prisoner of the dictator General Abacha. Now he is the front-runner in today's election for president.

Both General Obasanjo and the rival candidate, former finance minister Olu Falae, are Yorubas from the southwest. The retired general is the Yoruba most acceptable to Hausa generals from the north and has received the most campaign contribution from businessmen who prospered during the Abacha years.

Military power is in the Muslim north, while education and entrepreneurship are stronger in the Christian and animist south. Creating an artificial capital in the center, Abuja, was one of the ways that military strong men wasted the nation's oil wealth. Another was stealing it.

To realize its great potential, Nigeria needs national loyalty, freedom of speech and the press, restoration of law and order and an honest sharing of opportunity.

The toughest immediate problem facing election victors is the world decline in oil prices, which has impoverished every Third World country dependent on oil revenue. Then there is the problem of keeping the army employed and out of trouble, which General Abacha solved only by keeping it in anarchic Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Nigeria's greatness will come, if it does, not from foreign military adventures but from political integrity and cohesiveness to launch a productive economy.

Everyone who picketed for democracy in Nigeria outside the country's Washington embassy last year should be applauding the elections and supporting the winners. They will need help.

Weird science on Pluto

Name game: A rose is a rose and a planet is a planet; at least that's how it ought to be.

WHAT IF physicians had ignored death rates that suggested bloodletting wasn't such a great cure? What if mapmakers kissed off sailors' stories that disproved the Earth is flat? What if astronomers had evidence that Pluto isn't really a planet but decided to keep calling it one anyway? Hold it, that's where we are.

The International Astronomical Union says it will continue to list Pluto as our solar system's ninth planet even if it doesn't measure up. The IAU has gone medieval by placing tradition over science.

Yet the more astronomers learn about Pluto, the less it resembles other planets.

It's smaller than the Earth's moon. Its mass is only one five-hundredth of Earth's. It's neither rocky nor gaseous like the other eight planets. And it has an oval orbit -- not round like the others -- that puts it closer to the sun than Neptune for 20 of every 248 years.

Knowledge now available to scientists suggests Pluto is merely another trans-Neptunian object, one of about 100 other small, icy asteroids, spent comets, etc., found in that part of space.

A suggestion was made to redesignate Pluto as "Minor Planet 10,000," rather than "Planet Nine." But the IAU this month succumbed to U.S. sentiment for the only "planet" discovered by an American, Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. Pluto's status won't change.

It's true that a planet is pretty much whatever the IAU says it is. But there is precedent for making astronomical corrections as knowledge increases. The asteroid Ceres, even smaller than Pluto, used to be considered a planet.

With Pluto, science is taking a back seat to sentiment. As the millennium ends, that is disconcerting. History smolders yet from the bonfires set by past ignorance. Truth known must be revealed and accepted. The IAU should set specific criteria for a planet. If Pluto doesn't meet the rules, it's time to rewrite the science books.

Pub Date: 2/27/99

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