Babangida says democracy remains goal

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NIGERIA'S transition from military to civilian rule is in deep trouble following President Ibrahim Babangida's decision to cancel presidential primaries and disband the leadership of the two army- created political parties.

Gen Babangida took the decision last Friday after investigations revealed what most Nigerians had known all along: the military's stated goal of creating a new political climate in Africa's most populous nation had been a dismal failure. Public cynicism about the parties has been high since their creation by the military. The Babangida government funded the parties and wrote their political platforms.

The primaries had shown that corruption of the political process, through vote-rigging and buying, had reached an all-time high in Nigeria, a country whose 32 years of independence from Britain has been marred by fraudulent elections and ethnic and religious unrest. The military has ruled Nigeria for all but 10 years of its existence.

Gen Babangida, widely seen as one of Nigeria's most skilled military rulers, has found his administration increasingly bogged down by public unrest over spiralling inflation, rising foreign debt, currently at about dollars 33bn ( pounds 19.8bn), and spreading corruption.

The first attempt in August to run the primaries, contested by 23 candidates from the two military-created parties, the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), was aborted after widespread irregularities, including open bribery and the transporting of voters from polling station to polling station. A second try last month fared no better.

Gen Babangida, who came to power in a military coup in 1985, said the decision to halt the primaries leading up to presidential elections on 5 December did not affect his promise to hand over power to civilians. 'Essentially, the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) is firmly committed to bring about a viable democracy at all levels of government in accordance with electoral laws,' he said in a statement.

Gen Babangida did not say, however, if his government was still committed to the 2 January hand-over date. Already, he has pushed back that date twice. It was first scheduled in 1990 and later by the end of 1991.

'The greatest challenge to the transition to civil rule is the issue of a nationally acceptable political leadership with content and conviction to carry the whole country along the lines of political stability and progress,' Gen Babangida said.

The National Electoral Commission has been given stronger powers to screen all future presidential candidates and to organise new elections for the leadership of the parties. The NEC was expected to set up national party conventions to choose new candidates for the future presidential polls. All the candidates in the September election will be able to stand again.

Nevertheless, the latest army move, taken after a meeting of the 21-member AFRC in Nigeria's new capital, Abuja, will confirm the worst fears of Nigeria's vocal human rights community grouped in the Campaign for Democracy that the military was never intending to leave office on 2 January.

Leading lawyers, such as Alao Aka- Bashorun, the former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, have repeatedly accused the government of having a 'hidden agenda' to stay in power.

Several of the presidential candidates themselves welcomed the government's action, however. Nine candidates of the SDP boycotted the final round of primaries last month after accusing the party leadership of favouritism. Eighteen of the 30 elected governors had called on Gen Babangida not to hand over power at a time of political chaos, fearing the result would provoke another military coup.