Generals rattled in Nigeria's on-again off-again election

NIGERIANS have been unable to choose their leaders for a decade, thanks to two successive military regimes, so when they were given a chance to vote for their president yesterday, they did so with gusto.

Up to 39 million eligible voters made their way to 110,000 polling booths across the 30 states of Africa's most populous nation. The choice was between two millionaire Muslim and British-trained businessmen, banker Bashir Tofa and Chief Moshood Abiola, the flamboyant publisher and philanthropist. But for most people the significance of the election was not the presidential contest itself so much as the opportunity to vote against the military.

That opportunity seemed to vanish on Thursday night when a high court in the new capital, Abuja, ordered the election to be halted pending the hearing of a case brought by a mysterious pro-military group, the Association for a Better Nigeria, which has been campaigning for an extension of General Ibrahim Babangida's government. Nigerians were stunned: was the on-again, off-again return to civilian rule about to be ditched once more? President Babangida had promised to leave three times before - in October 1990, October 1992 and January 1993 - but was still firmly in the saddle.

Despite Nigeria's oil wealth, the country has been ravaged by economic hardship. The fact that little functions properly and poverty and unemployment are rife is largely attributed to corruption and military mismanagement.

For several hours, the air was thick with the rumours of conspiracy that routinely fly about Nigeria, an immense mosaic of a country with 90 million people and 250 ethnic groups. Senior military officers had already met to discuss halting the transition programme, dissolving the two army-created political parties and banning the candidates. Now the ruling National Defence and Security Council went into an emergency meeting, even though a military decree had said no court could halt the transition. Was 'Maradona', as Gen Babangida is known for his capacity to weave back and forth across the political scene, up to his old tricks?

The suspense was over by late afternoon when the electoral commission said that the government would ignore the court ruling and proceed with the election.

There is little to choose between Tofa's National Republican Convention and Abiola's Social Democratic Party. Both groups were formed and funded by the military government, both leaders are friends of Babangida. Abiola, a Yoruba chief and a household name for his sponsorship of football clubs and charities, is immensely popular in the Yoruba heartland of south-western Nigeria. 'Bashir who?' Tofa is relatively unknown, but he is popular in the north and enjoys the backing of the Islamic spiritual leader, the Sultan of Sokoto. The result should be known by Tuesday, and the military is due to stand down by August 27. (Photograph omitted)