Generals lurk behind Nigeria's new democracy

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The Independent Online
THE NEW president of Nigeria, who is to be elected tomorrow in a process marking a democratic rite of passage for the world's biggest black nation, is expected to be little more than puppet of the military establishment.

A retired general and former head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo, is almost certain to win the vote. A group of powerful politicians defected from his rival, the former finance minister Olu Falae, yesterday, making an Obasanjo victory virtually certain.

Both Obasanjo and Falae are Yorubas, and both were imprisoned during the rule of the late tyrannical dictator, Gen Sani Abacha.

Gen Obasanjo became president in 1976 on the assassination of Gen Murtala Mohamed and he ruled Nigeria for three years, giving up power to an elected government in 1979 - the only Nigerian ruler ever to have done so.

Yesterday, in an exclusive interview with The Independent, General Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria's former dictator from 1985 to 1993 and still the most powerful man in the country, defended the military's behind-the-scenes role. He also denied funding the front-runner in tomorrow's elections

Nigeria's transition programme has been riddled with irregularities since it began with the registration of voters last October.

The election will end 15 years of military rule in a country of some 100 million people, who have enjoyed civilian rule for only 10 of their 39 years of independence from Britain.

Despite public differences between the candidate - played up by all sides along ethnic lines - both candidates are acceptable to the military establishment. Both have also pledged that there will be no investigation of embezzlement of the country's oil income by the army's top brass.

Olusegun Obasanjo has been caricatured as the candidate of the northern ruling-class. By contrast, Mr Falae is portrayed as the underdog, and as the favourite of the underprivileged and populous south-west.

Whoever wins tomorrow will have to wait until 29 May for the formal handover to civilian rule - a three-month delay which will be a hand-holding exercise by the present head of state, Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar, assisted by Gen Babangida.

Asked how much money he has given to Mr Obasanjo's campaign, Gen Babangida said: "Nothing. Nigerians thrive on allegations and rumours and innuendoes."

In answer to claims that retired members of the military who gained their wealth through corruption are ushering in a friend in civilian clothes, Babangida said: "I think the role [in the election] of the retired military is like the role of any other citizen of this country. They have the same rights as all citizens.

"A retired man is not a lesser man than those who have not been in the military. Their role is the same as that of any patriot of this country," he said at his home in Minna, the central town where he went to school with Gen Abubakar.

The influence that "IBB" as he is known, wields in Minna from his two- story mansion with two dozen cars and a peacock in the garden, is a microcosm of his powerful role in Nigeria as a whole.

Minna has the Niger Tornadoes Football Club (Patron: Mrs Maryam Babangida), the IBB Specialist Hospital and the humbler Abdulsalami Abubakar Garage, from which bush-taxis depart. Inside the thick walls of his mansion, called IBB Residence, unctuous well-wishers fill a waiting room.

This is the real seat of power in Nigeria, alongside the capital, Abuja, two hours' drive away, and the city of Kaduna, also about two hours away along fine roads.

Abuja is where administrators, both civilian and military, hang out. Kaduna, by tradition, is where they retire to. Since the death last year of Gen Abacha who took power in 1993 after overthrowing the shaky civilian government installed by Gen Babangida, a semblance of order has returned to the ranks of the army, and to the country.

In General Abubakar, Babangida has one of his best friends in power. British Airways and Air France have returned to Nigeria, and Royal Dutch Shell has pledged $8.5bn in investments. Nigeria has also reached an agreement with the IMF that could eventually lead to debt rescheduling and short- term financing to meet an estimated $1.3bn deficit in 1999.

The logo of the German paint and construction company, Julius Berger, is to be seen everywhere, again. Another German company, Strabag, is upgrading stadiums for the Fifa Youth World Cup in April. These are only some of the signs that IBB's influence has returned; a blessed relief from the greed and bad taste of Abacha who was reported to have died with $60m in his mattress.

Gen Babangida says the military "are looking forward to a democratic Nigeria. They will be willing at all times to subordinate themselves to the constitutive legally elected authority. I am positive of this."

He sees his role under the forthcoming civilian government as that of an elder statesman - "somebody who will ensure that things go well for this country, to advise where possible, and to fight for the place of Nigeria as a strong, united democratic country".

Such is Gen Babangida's influence that even die-hard critics of military rule in Nigeria are resigning themselves to the military-designed transition period.

"We are getting a president who is acceptable to the military. We must just hope that we get someone we consider right the next time around," said Abdul Oroh, director of Nigeria's Civil Liberties Organisation. "After all, we cannot expect a good democracy to come from a transition designed by the military."