Nigeria comes in from the cold

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The Independent Online
THE DIPLOMATIC deep freeze around Nigeria's military regime is showing the first sign of a thaw, with a phone call yesterday from Tony Blair to the country's new ruler, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, who will now hold talks with a Foreign Office minister this weekend.

The trip to Nigeria by Tony Lloyd, squeezed in under the wire of Britain's presidency of the European Union which ends next week, is a direct response to the release of prominent political prisoners and other conciliatory gestures by General Abubakar since he took power on the death of Sani Abacha on 8 June.

Under the brutal rule of General Abacha, Africa's most populous country had become a pariah state, suspended from membership of the Commonwealth and subject to worldwide sanctions. But after these initial "encouraging" moves by his successor, Foreign Office officials said, significant improvement may be at hand.

The first test will be the fate of Moshood Abiola, the civilian who was poised to win Nigeria's last elections inJune 1993 before they were annulled with only preliminary results declared. A year later he was arrested and charged with treason, and the country's descent into tyranny began.

The semi-official word in Nigeria is that Chief Abiola's release could now come "within days". He has already been moved to more comfortable house arrest, and is understood to have met General Abubakar twice. Indeed, he would probably have been free by now but for his refusal to drop his claim to victory in the 1993 poll.

In the meantime, a no less prominent prisoner, the former military ruler Olusegun Abasanjo, has been freed, along with more than a dozen other detainees. "This was an important initial step on the path to reconciliation and a return to democracy," British officials said last night.

It is upon this foundation that Mr Lloyd, representing both Britain and the EU, will seek to build when he meets General Abubakar tomorrow. The test now is not merely whether the new regime frees Chief Abiola, but whether it pushes ahead with a return to democracy.

Britain and the EU insist that General Abacha's promise of a properly- elected government in place by 1 October must be kept by his successor - but with the crucial difference that the elections are genuinely free.The Abacha version of "elections" was one where he would be the sole candidate. Unsurprisingly, his plans were denounced as a sham by the Commonwealth, which has been considering turning Nigeria's suspension into outright expulsion.

That drastic step can no longer be on the cards. But even assuming General Abubaker's intentions are of the best, organising elections acceptable to all parties will be the trickiest of tasks, given the ethnic and regional tensions that have always plagued Nigerian politics.

Some opposition groups are demanding that Chief Abiola - a southerner unlike the army commanders who come mainly from the north of the country - take over immediately as head of a new Government of national unity. Others maintain that he alone cannot speak for the entire civilian population.

Whatever decision is taken over the aborted election of 1993 should be a "collective effort," a National Democratic Coalition spokesman said - "it cannot be done by Abiola himself".