Nigeria challenges West on democracy: The election annulment tests British and US commitment to political reform across Africa, writes Richard Dowden

'HOW the democratic world reacts to the so-called annulment of the 12 June elections will forever decide the fate of democracy in Africa.'

Chief Moshood K O Abiola, President-elect of Nigeria, was long on rhetoric and short on commitment when he gave a hurried press conference in London on Friday, but in this throwaway line he touched the core of the democratisation process in Africa.

Firstly, Chief Abiola was indulging a habit which has bedevilled Africa since the days of colonial rule. He was calling on the West to do it for him. Many Africans of his generation still seem to believe that the fate of their continent is determined by applying moral pressure in London, Paris or Washington. The point was emphasised by his presence in London when many Nigerians thought he should have been leading the forces of democracy back home in Nigeria. But Chief Abiola, a multi-millionaire businessman, is no Boris Yeltsin. 'There is nothing to be gained from false heroism,' he said, and made no mention of the strikes called in his support in Nigeria over the past few days.

Chief Abiola fled from Nigeria earlier this month after his victory in the presidential election was annulled by the military government. The election was called and then manipulated by President Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria's military ruler, but was regarded as acceptably free and fair by observers and the rest of the world, including the British and American governments. Chief Abiola had been one of two hand-picked candidates, but when it became clear that he would win, the government ignored the result. The reason remains unclear.

Chief Abiola and General Babangida have been close friends, but it seems that other elements in the military refused to accept him and President Babangida was forced to jilt him - and the electorate. On Thursday General Babangida handed over office - but perhaps not power - to a hand-picked 'transitional' government which has civilian and military elements.

The second question that Chief Abiola raised in that sentence is whether Western democracies do have the power to bring democracy to Africa. Three years ago the governments of the United States, Britain and France launched a new policy for the continent. With the end of the Cold War the West no longer needed dictators to protect its interests in Africa, so it began to promote better government, freedom of expression and respect for human rights.

The Americans went furthest, crusading for full multi- party democracy. The British were more sceptical, calling merely for 'good governance', but there was a consensus that accountable, transparent government and free-market economics would somehow liberate Africa from poverty and mismanagement. Ordinary Africans were not slow to respond. Their countries were ruled by corrupt dictators and their economies were in debt and out of control. The manifest desire for change led some to talk about a 'second liberation'.

In the 1980s real elections among Africa's more than 50 countries could be counted on the fingers of one hand, but in the past two years there have been more than 25. Every ruler has been forced to make some concessions to the call for democracy. And those who resisted it, like President Daniel arap Moi in Kenya and President Hastings Banda in Malawi, found their aid cut off. Mr Moi admitted that multi-party democracy had been forced on Kenya against his will by Western pressure.

Western diplomats have begun to talk more and more openly in terms of 'getting them to do this or that' as the West appeared to be embarking on a new imperial role in Africa. In the case of Kenya the world financial institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which until then had confined their loan criteria to economic performance, were given political mandates. Africa, having lost all strategic and economic significance, can be easily pushed around, but the pushing does not always produce the desired or expected result. Nigeria is providing the first real test of the strength and commitment of the new Western policy for Africa. It has the largest population on the continent, is a major oil producer and ranks second only to South Africa in economic importance. In annulling the June election President Babangida became the first African leader to refuse to bow to Western pressure.

At first Washington and London sounded tough, imposing restrictions on the Nigerian military and threatening to cut off aid unless it restored democracy and honoured the election result. 'This is a testing time for those who care about democracy in Africa,' said Baroness Chalker, Minister for Overseas Development, on 27 June. 'We must stand united and firm . . . business cannot go on as usual.' Four days later the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, said Britain would not lift the sanctions 'until a democratic civilian regime has been installed and is working unhindered'.

But when General Babangida handed over to Chief Ernest Shonekan on Thursday Britain's reaction was muted. 'We wish to consider the implications,' said the Foreign Office. Mr Hurd's ringing demand of 1 July had changed to: 'We attach importance to the achievement of a stable, democratic government in Nigeria unhindered by the military.'

Washington, which has demanded Western-style democracy for Africa even more uncompromisingly, is also muted in its response. In private there is talk of 'a pragmatic approach, looking at the realities on the ground'.

One reason for Britain's softened stance is the absence on holiday of Baroness Chalker, who is a great deal more aggressive about democracy in Africa than Foreign Office officials. They know that Britain, as the former colonial power, makes an easy scapegoat if it is seen to be 'interfering'. They also believe that Chief Shonekan, who used to head Unilever in Nigeria, would make a more able and pliable leader of Nigeria than Chief Abiola.

There is a lot at stake. Britain has pounds 1 bn invested in Nigeria and close human and historical links. Nigeria has already had one civil war, and the memory of it has not faded. War would be accompanied by famine - and Nigeria's population is 10 times the size of Somalia's.

But Nigeria's size and position of leadership in Africa make it a test case for Western policy. So far, when presented with President Babangida's latest trick, the Foreign Office has blinked.

(Photograph omitted)

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