Nigeria tries to start presidential poll rolling again: Fraud scuppered the first round and the mood is still pessimistic about electing a civilian leader, writes Karl Maier in Lagos

GLOOM surrounds Nigeria's second attempt to hold presidential primaries for two military-backed political parties today amid concern over the 'national question' - whether the 250 ethnic groups can live together within the nation state created by Britain.

The first attempt to hold primaries of the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was aborted on 1 August due to widespread vote-buying, double counting and the use of 'flying' voters from neighbouring states. The flagrant abuses made a mockery of President Ibrahim Babangida's hope of creating a new, cleaner political climate and prompted a government threat to impose a 10-year ban on any politician who cheats.

Twenty-three candidates are contesting the staggered primaries being held in 10 states today, and on each of the two following Saturdays, to gain nomination for presidential polls on 5 December, the first since 1983, shortly before the military overthrew the government of President Shehu Shagari.

General Babangida has vowed to hand over power to an elected civilian government next January. The army has ruled this country of about 90 million for 22 of its 31 years of independence.

The Former army chief of staff, Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, and Olu Falae, a former finance minister, are leading SDP candidates, while the NRC front-runners are the former security chief, Umaru Shinkafi, and Bamanga Tukur, a millionaire who once ran the Nigerian Port Authority. The campaign of Adamu Ciroma, considered by many the most able and principled candidate, has faded amid fears of some senior army officers that he would probe military corruption.

The 'national question,' virtually a taboo subject since the attempt to secede by the Ibo majority in eastern Nigeria was crushed in the 1967-70 Biafra war, has been the subject of increased debate in the press in recent weeks. It has been spurred by demands, particularly from the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria, that the next president be a southerner.

The Muslim north, dominated by the Hausa-Fulani people, traditionally holds the executive branch and appears to be set to continue, this time through the more unified Republicans, if the military hands over on schedule. While the SDP won a majority in the National Assembly elections in July, the Republican Convention polled more votes overall.

Despite repeated denials by President Babangida, there is growing concern that the military is pursuing a 'hidden agenda' - using the chaos of the election campaign, a deteriorating economy, and unrest among the urban poor and rival ethnic groups in the north as an excuse to stay in power.

The government's Western-backed structural adjustment programme to revamp the economy has been bogged down over massive budget deficits that have sent inflation soaring above 50 per cent and jeopardised negotiations to reschedule Nigeria's dollars 30bn ( pounds 15bn) foreign debt with the International Monetary Fund and the Paris Club of creditors. A potentially explosive domestic issue centres on Nigeria's leading role in the two-year-old West African peace- keeping force in Liberia. Reports this week said that Charles Taylor's rebel forces, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), had taken hostage 500 peace-keepers, most of them Nigerian.

The reports sparked conflicting views, with the Nigerian labour leader, Paschal Bafyau, calling for a withdrawal of the costly Nigerian expedition from Liberia, and the Nigerian ambassador to Monrovia, Henry Ajakaiye, urging further intervention. 'Now it is our turn,' Mr Ajakaiye said on Monday. 'We are poised to crush Taylor's rebellion at all costs and the costs will be heavy.'

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