Nigerians fear new MPs will fail democracy

NIGERIA is in danger of jettisoning democracy before it has even sampled it - because feuding politicians are putting their vanity ahead of issues crucial to a successful transition from military rule, according to foreign and local observers .

This weekend, the political parties of the world's biggest black nation - governed by the military for all but 10 of its 39 years of independence - are choosing candidates for the presidential election on 27 February. Next Saturday parliamentary elections will be held.

Olisa Agbakoba, a Lagos-based human rights lawyer who in the first half of last year was imprisoned by the military, said: "The politicians have learnt nothing except to give way on nothing. I fear we will inherit a very fragile democracy."

The military ruler of Africa's most populous country, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, has pledged to hand over to a civilian government on 29 May, a year after he took power following the death of the tyrannical General Sani Abacha.

Gen Abubakar, who is seen as having no political ambitions, has drawn praise internationally for instigating the current electoral process and promising that the military will give up political power - a sort of African Gorbachev.

The developed world is eager to do business with Nigeria. Its oil companies have been unable to do so properly since November 1995, when Gen Abacha ordered the execution of the author Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Nigeria was placed under UN sanctions and excluded from the Commonwealth after the hanging of Mr Saro-Wiwa and nine other environmental and human rights activists from the oil-rich Ogoni region. Oil companies did not leave but scaled down their activities.

Last week, in a show of support for Gen Abubakar's transition programme, Royal Dutch/Shell announced that it would invest $8.5bn (pounds 5.3bn). Nigeria wants the world to come back: it earns 95 per cent of its foreign currency from oil.

Nigeria's 108 million people certainly want a government which will bring back wealth and foreign investment to their potential African powerhouse.

European and US companies are dying to return, now the word "democracy" can be said to be part of Nigerian politics.

But every election candidate knows the military will never be far away, even if there are no overt coup threats.

All of this, and the fact that Nigeria has only once before experienced a military-to-civilian handover which has worked, has given rise to a thoroughly compromised political class - usually businessmen dabbling in politics for the vanity of it.

The line-up of candidates for selection by the primaries this weekend of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and the All People's Party (APP) and Alliance for Democracy (AD) contains few surprises. The PDP's top two candidates are Olusegun Obasanjo, 61, the favoured candidate of the military, who in 1979 became the first general to hand over power to an elected civilian, and Alex Ekwueme, 66, vice-president in Nigeria's last civilian regime.

The APP and AD have said they will back a joint presidential candidate. Front-runner is Olu Falae, 60, a former finance minister who is the favoured choice of the economically-powerful and southern-based Yoruba ethnic group.

Mr Agbakoba and other observers fear all the candidates are still too mired in former tie-ups with military regimes. In the last three months, newspapers have been full of scandals, all aimed at tarnishing one politician's reputation more than the last.