Babangida annuls presidential election: Britain freezes aid as Nigeria military pulls back from democracy

BRITAIN has frozen new aid to Nigeria and will withdraw its military training team in protest at Lagos's decision to cancel the recent presidential election and postpone a return to democracy.

Whitehall sources said last night that the measures, which also include a tightening of visas for Nigerian armed forces and their families, are aimed specifically at Nigeria's military rulers, to demonstrate Britain's anger at their decision.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday he deplored the cancellation of the 12 June election which he said observers had suggested had been free and fair. 'This decision is bound to have serious implications for Nigeria's relations with the international community, and the United Kingdom will have no option but to reassess its own bilateral relations with that country' he said.

It is understood that Britain is waiting for a response to this indication of disapproval before taking further measures, such as cutting arms sales and trade promotion or reducing Britain's aid to Nigeria, which this year will be pounds 23m.

The US strongly condemned the military's decision. 'The United States opposes the outrageous decision of the Nigerian military regime to annul the . . . election and cancel the transition to elected civilian rule,' said a State Department spokesman, Michael McCurry.

Nigeria has been plunged into uncertainty by the decision of President Ibrahim Babangida to annul the elections, leaving his regime in power indefinitely but short of support both inside Nigeria and internationally.

The decision announced by the National Defence and Security Council, the country's most powerful body, shocked Nigeria, its trading partners and aid donors. Tough reactions from the West indicate that Nigeria, until now given an easy time by aid donors on its economic reform programme, may find it has few friends to help it sort out its spiralling economic decline and dollars 28bn ( pounds 18bn) debt.

The election, regarded by most observers as broadly free and fair, produced a clear winner: Chief Moshood Abiola, leader of the Social Democratic Party. But announcement of his victory was forbidden by a court order after a petition by the Association for Better Nigeria - a group trying to persuade President Babangida to stay in office.

Even those Nigerians who had predicted the army would find some way of clinging to power were astonished that President Babangida should have allowed the process to go so far before cutting it off. 'It wasn't unexpected. We have been saying this for years,' said Beko Ransome-Kuti, chairman of the Campaign for Democracy in Lagos. He called for a general strike in response to the decision.

The statement by the National Defence and Security Council said that the National Electoral Commission had been suspended and the decree returning Nigeria to civilian rule was cancelled. 'These steps are taken so as to protect our legal system and the judiciary from being ridiculed and politicised both nationally and internationally,' the statement said. But Nigerian commentators scoffed at this excuse, pointing out that the government never respected the courts and refused to allow its decrees to be challenged in law. The government threatened to impose a state of emergency if unrest broke out.

President Babangida had attacked sceptics in attempts to persuade them he would step down, even though he had already postponed a return to democracy three times. As recently as 17 May he poured scorn on the 'choristers of the military-will-not-go' and said: 'The military's commitment to withdrawal to the barracks is irrevocable. This administration's commitment to handing back power to a democratically elected president is equally irrevocable.' Now the sceptics have been proved right.

The election was the creation of the military. President Babangida set up the two parties, chose their officers, wrote their manifestoes and supplied them with money and offices. He also manipulated the selection of their leaders to ensure that no one became president who might turn on him and his military colleagues and investigate corruption and theft during the past 10 years of military rule.

NIGERIA 1960 TO 1993

1 October 1960: Britain grants independence. Tafawa Balewa is prime minister.

1963: Nigeria becomes republic. January 1966: Balewa killed in military coup. Gen Aguiyi Ironsi is head of state.

May 1966: Ironsi dissolves federation for unitary government.

July 1966: Ironsi killed in coup. Lt- Col Yakubu Gowon in power.

July 1967-Jan 1970: Biafran civil war.

July 1975: Gowon toppled by Gen Murtala Mohammed.

February 1976: Mohammed assassinated. Gen Olusegun Obasanjo takes over.

1979: Elections under new presidential constitution. Shehu Shagari wins.

1983: Shagari toppled. Maj Gen Mohammadu Buhari in power.

August 1985: Buhari overthrown in palace coup led by his second-in- command, Maj Gen Ibrahim Babangida.

July 1986: Babangida sets up bureau to arrange transition to civilian rule.

1989: Ban on politics lifted.

1989: Government creates Social Democratic Party and conservative National Republican Convention for elections in transfer of power by 2 January 1993.

Mid-1992: National assembly polls, after some of Nigeria's worst Christian-Muslim and ethnic violence.

October-November 1992: Babangida scraps primaries to choose presidential candidates for December poll after massive fraud. Bars all 23 candidates from standing again and delays planned January 1993 handover to 27 August.