Nigerian military breaks the bank

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(First Edition)

EMPTY coffers could be awaiting Chief Moshood Abiola, who appeared set to win Nigeria's first presidential elections in a decade, when he is inaugurated on 27 August, the day the military government has promised to retire. Although the National Electoral Commission stopped posting vote tallies yesterday, results from half of the 30 states showed Chief Abiola leading by a wide margin.

The campaign promises of Chief Abiola and his Social Democratic Party (SDP) to provide Nigeria's increasingly impoverished 90 million people with free education, abundant cheap housing, lower prices and a strong national currency, the naira, will be difficult to meet.

Many ordinary Nigerians, accustomed to seeing Chief Abiola dole out money to charities and sports teams, seem to feel he will overcome any money shortages by digging into his own pocket. 'My brother says Abiola will take half of his money and uplift the people from their suffering,' said Mutiu Olayide, a 24-year-old Lagos car mechanic. 'Everybody know he a rich man and can make Nigeria good again.'

While many observers dismissed Chief Abiola's pledges to make Nigeria into an economic paradise overnight as campaign rhetoric, there is a general consensus that the only way to calm urban unrest and improve living standards is to channel investment into job expansion, schools and agricultural production.

Services such as power and water are sporadic in much of Nigeria, especially in the commercial centre of Lagos, and foreign investor confidence is low because of the lack of infrastructure and rising violent crime. To operate in Lagos now, a foreign company needs to install generators and its own water supply.

Nigeria is dollars 3bn-dollars 4bn in arrears on its dollars 29bn foreign debt. With General Ibrahim Babangida's military government having run up budget deficits of about pounds 1bn in each of the past two years, and spending on the 16,000-strong military intervention force in Liberia an army secret, foreign exchange reserves have plummeted. By the end of last year, reserves were about pounds 1bn, compared with more than pounds 2.5bn the year before.

Chief Abiola has repeatedly suggested that he would ditch the structural adjustment programme (SAP), undertaken with the International Monetary Fund, but which the government effectively abandoned two years ago. But he has drawn praise from Western bankers by diagnosing the reform programme's main problem: budget-breaking spending by the military government.

The National Republican Convention (NRC), second-runner in the election, yesterday called for results to be cancelled because the poll was 'massively rigged', Reuter reports. A party official said a protest had been lodged with the National Electoral Commission.