Military's long rule is ending in Nigeria; International observers are on hand to ensure presidential election is fair


NYANYA, Nigeria -- Schoolteacher Rakmat M. Sani lent her old, ink-stained desk to the cause of democracy and historic change here yesterday.

It was placed on the veranda outside the dingy primary school classroom in which she teaches 10-year-olds, so that voters in this depressed township could choose a civilian to replace this country's military head of state.

The presidential choice was between former military leader Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, 61, who campaigned as a democrat, and Olu Falae, 60, a Yale-trained former finance minister in a military regime who ran as an economic reformer.

With the presidential campaign lasting little more than a week, neither candidate had the opportunity to outline specific policies, but both generally promised a better life for Africa's most populous nation.

Internationally, they both emphasized the need for foreign investment and said they would consider withdrawing Nigerian peacekeepers from an unpopular and expensive deployment to Sierra Leone, complicating that country's search for an end to civil war.

Both were also prisoners of conscience for their support of democracy during the ruthless and corrupt dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha, who died last year. Local political observers have credited each with impressive qualifications for leadership.

The winner will replace the current head of state, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, who decided to return the army to its barracks in the face of domestic and international outrage over its human rights violations and economic corruption.

Abubakar, who toured polling stations yesterday, said: "The transition process is on course again."

The military has ruled here for all but 10 of the 39 years since Nigeria gained its independence from Britain. The civilian president will be inaugurated May 29.

As widely expected, Obasanjo lost in his home state of Ogun in the southwest, one of the first to be fully announced.

Falae seemed to have done better than expected in a handful of unofficial results from southeastern Enugu, Onitsha and Port Harcourt, where Obasanjo's Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) swept recent local, state and national assembly votes.

Obasanjo had edged ahead in the north, but turnout there was patchy.

Turnout was better than for last week's National Assembly elections but was still below 20 percent of eligible voters in some areas.

In front of Sani's desk, in the shade around the sun-baked, dusty school yard here, only 151 of Nyanya's 853 registered voters cast their ballots, and three of those spoiled their papers.

As each voter stepped forward, his or her registration card was stamped, a ballot paper was handed over, and Sani daubed the cuticle of the voter's right thumbnail with indelible purple ink to prevent repeat voting.

"Everybody's very happy," said Sani, a jolly 35-year-old. "They like politics being renewed. They don't want any more military."

Once past Sani, the voters went to another school desk, pressed their thumbs on an ink pad and secretly made a print on the ballot paper for the party of their choice. When all the votes had been placed in the glass-walled ballot box, guarded by two armed police officers, they were emptied onto Sani's desk to be counted publicly.

The result: a draw, with 74 votes for Obasanjo's PDP, and 74 votes for Falae's All Peoples Party, running a joint ticket with the Alliance for Democracy .

The process was watched by agents from the two parties and an independent observer, there to prevent the sort of ballot-box stuffing and vote buying that marred earlier elections for local, provincial and national assemblies.

After going through the ritual of democracy at Sani's school, Ada Isa, 38, a civil servant with a wife and four children, assessed his plight. His monthly pay: $80.

"Grossly inadequate," he said. "It's not enough even to feed my family. Things are terribly bad. As a civil servant you may be tempted, if you have access to government money, to steal it because your salary is so poor."

His demands to the new civilian government: higher pay and improved living conditions, education and utilities.

His vote went to Obasanjo, whose opponents have portrayed the former officer as likely to be a stooge of the military because he still has close support from both retired and active generals.

Isa said he viewed Obasanjo's military background as a political strength, increasing his chances of keeping the army from staging another coup.

How long the military will stay in its barracks this time is a major concern for Nigeria. But former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who has met with military officers, said in an interview here yesterday: "The only danger in my opinion of another military takeover is [if] a civilian government assumes office in May and then is incompetent and corrupt."

The army, he said, had seen what corruption and human rights abuses under Abacha had done to the nation's international integrity and social and economic welfare at home.

"I really think the military has expressed its view through Abubakar" calling elections, he said.

Carter urged international support, particularly from the United States, for the new government.

"If we abandon Nigeria, then I think it's much less likely that the next president will be able to perform properly," said Carter.

The Clinton administration lifted sanctions Friday that were imposed on Nigeria as a hub of international drug trade, saying increased aid would be in the U.S. national interest, enabling the civilian government to curb narcotics traffic through this country en route to the United States.

The Atlanta-based Carter Center and the Washington, D.C.-based National Democratic Institute had 60 monitors checking polling practices in 24 states yesterday. They will issue a report tomorrow.

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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