Nigeria elections fail to stir hard-pressed voters: The change people want is not on offer, writes Karl Maier in Lagos

NIGERIA is literally crawling towards its first presidential elections in a decade on Saturday as widespread power cuts and fuel shortages overshadowed the campaign finales by the two military-approved contestants, millionaire Muslim businessmen Bashir Tofa and Moshood Abiola.

The fuel shortages in Africa's biggest oil producer, due to strikes, and the extended power failures, caused by low gas pressure at three plants, effectively shut down the country's commercial centre, Lagos, and left millions of people stranded or caught up in unprecedented traffic jams.

A work-to-rule this week by staff at the state oil company, NNPC, over wages and working conditions halted production and caused cars with empty petrol tanks to clog the streets. It also brought shortages of diesel fuel, which companies and wealthy home-owners use to counter the power cuts.

Temporary fuel shortages are routine in Lagos, and chronic scarcities have gripped northern Nigeria for the past two years. But they have been particularly severe in the run-up to the election, the penultimate stage of General Ibrahim Babangida's much delayed transition to civilian rule, now scheduled to end in a handover on 27 August.

'The reason you do not see trouble, protests and demonstrations is because all the people want Babangida just to go,' said Femi Adeniji, a Lagos motorist who queued for five hours to buy petrol on Tuesday. 'No trouble and no excuse for the army boys to stay.'

'People are fed up with the military,' said Tony Adefuye, a senator. 'They want a change.'

Both presidential candidates, Mr Abiola for the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Mr Tofa for the National Republican Convention (NRC), have spent most of the campaign pledging to build a promised land of low inflation, high employment and a strong national currency, the naira. The independent African Guardian weekly described the campaign as 'All Blah Blah and no bite'.

Mr Abiola, a Yoruba chief and flamboyant publisher of the Concord Group, has said that if elected, he would ensure that the Nigerian national football team reaches the World Cup finals next year in the United States.

Neither Mr Tofa, 45, a bank chairman from the northern city of Kano, nor Mr Abiola, 55, have squarely addressed the problems of rampant corruption, restoring local and foreign investor confidence in the flagging economy, or how to reduce Nigeria's dollars 29bn ( pounds 19bn) foreign debt.

The two candidates have close links to the military and have promised not to investigate financial mismanagement and graft under the Babangida government. Both have been accused of financial wrongdoings themselves. They have also pledged continued support for Nigeria's 16,000-strong military intervention force in Liberia, which is costing the country dollars 150,000 per day.

Nigeria needs a deal with the International Monetary Fund for the Paris Club of government creditors to consider a substantial debt write-off. But talks with the IMF to replace a reform programme that expired in April 1992 have stalled. Western creditors have said by running up massive budget deficits and permitting corruption to run free, the Babangida government effectively abandoned its reform programme two years ago.

In January, after breaking its third self-imposed deadline to hand over power, the military set up a 'transitional council' headed by a respected businessman, Ernest Shonekan, ostensibly to run the country. The council drew up a highly praised budget but because it does not oversee key spending it has been dismissed by most Nigerians and foreign bankers as a public relations exercise to woo the Western business community.