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'Leader of Africa' image is tarnished: Chaos over election threatens Nigeria's United Nations Council aspirations

(First Edition)

ABIDJAN (agencies) - Nigeria's main foreign policy goal and the image it seeks to project as a champion of black interests were both in bad shape this weekend. The military regime's refusal to accept the result of the 12 June presidential election may do enormous damage to the country's international relations, foreign and African analysts fear.

While African leaders kept an embarrassed silence, Nigeria's dominant allies and partners, the United States and Britain, expressed their shock and anger in public statements.

Officials of the two countries said their governments felt betrayed by General Ibrahim Babangida, the military president, who still insists he will leave office as planned on 27 August.

'We have no wish to punish the people of Nigeria, but it is essential that we bring home to this undemocratic military government the united view that democracy and public accountability are essential in the sound development of any nation,' said Baroness Chalker, Minister for Overseas Development.

'If Nigeria's military leaders continue down this undemocratic path then they will do so alone, without donor support,' added Lady Chalker. 'International observers, including our own British MPs, were satisfied that the elections had been free and fair.'

'We trusted him,' a Western diplomat said, trying to measure the likely economic and diplomatic fall-out from Gen Babangida's intervention.

It stopped the millionaire Moshood Abiola from being declared the winner of an election which foreign and Nigerian observers said was the fairest in the country's history.

Analysts said Nigeria's long-standing ambition to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council now looked absurd. 'Forget it. That is out of the window,' a Western ambassador serving in West Africa said.

Nigeria's UN campaign, the centre-piece of its foreign policy, was already uphill work. But it was making progress and the case for an African representative could have been overwhelming if, as may happen, the Security Council's permanent membership is expanded from the present five.

Nigeria's official policy for many years has been that its population of nearly 90 million makes it uniquely qualified to defend the interests of blacks everywhere - whether in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean or Africa. 'They have certainly tarnished that image,' a US diplomat said.

The outside world, when it thinks about Nigeria at all, often focuses on violence, corruption and drug smuggling. This image reflects only part of the truth about a dynamic and entrepreneurial society with few of the post-colonial hang-ups that still cripple elites in many African countries.

Only Nigerian journalists could write, as they often do, about 'our great virile nation'. Nigerian claims to leadership have depended on Gen Babangida's avowed commitment since 1985 to return to civilian rule. That was what set him apart from African leaders such as Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko who have defied international pressure to accept democracy.

Many hopes were pinned on Nigeria. Optimists said a successful handover by the army would restore belief in Africa and silence those who have all but written off the continent.