Nigerian voters look for a leader: Lagos demands withdrawal of US embassy spokesman after Washington insists elections, the first for 10 years, should go ahead. Karl Maier reports

NIGERIA's first presidential elections in a decade, due to take place today, were almost called off after a high court ruled late on Thursday in favour of an application to have the vote halted. General Ibrahim Babangida's eight-year-old military government decided to go ahead with the election following an emergency meeting of the National Defence and Security Council yesterday. Military decree 13, issued earlier this year, had said that no court ruling could halt any part of the programme of transition to civilian rule.

The United States, in an unusually strong statement yesterday, said 'any postponement of the election would cause grave concern to the US government'. This prompted Nigeria to demand the withdrawal within 72 hours of Michael O'Brien, the embassy spokesman, accusing him of 'blatant interference' and describing his statement as 'unacceptable'.

Shortly afterwards, the News Agency of Nigeria reported that the Centre for Democratic Studies had withdrawn accreditation for eight US election monitors, claiming this was a 'sequel' to the US statement.

The application to stop the election came from the Association for a Better Nigeria, a shadowy group headed by a millionaire businessman, Arthur Nzeribe, and reportedly made up of wealthy businessmen and former politicians. It called for Gen Babangida to stay in office four more years, arguing that neither of the two candidates, Moshood Abiola and Bashir Tofa, both Muslim businessmen, was qualified to lead Nigeria.

Leadership, it is generally agreed, is the one ingredient missing in Nigeria's cultural mix to promote economic development, clean government and more loyalty to the nation and less to the individual - a view not shared by the authorities.

Retired General Olusegun Obasanjo, the only military president to have handed over to an elected civilian government (in 1979), fears the lack of leadership will tear apart the country's 90 million people and 250 ethnic groups. There is also a growing consensus that today's elections will not solve the problem.

Gen Obasanjo, Nigeria's candidate in 1991 to become UN Secretary-General, believes Gen Babangida's government is largely to blame. 'This administration has shown the weakness of (its supporters),' he said, in an interview at his farm 30 miles outside Lagos. 'You can determine the commitment of the elite followers by what you put in their mouth at that particular time. No commitment.'

Neither Mr Tofa, the northern banker standing for the National Republican Convention, nor Chief Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a former executive of International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) and owner of the Concord publishing house, were their parties' first choices. Gen Babangida cited corruption and vote-rigging as reasons to ban more mainstream politicians. Neither Mr Tofa nor Mr Abiola contested last year's primaries, after which the military declared that group of contestants ineligible.

Last month, at a meeting with leading politicians and former military leaders, Gen Obasanjo and his supporters faulted Gen Babangida's transition programme but demanded that he leave office on 27 August as scheduled. The president had already laid down how parties would be formed, what their names would be, and what was in the constitution, he said. 'Obviously, he has done his homework even before the parties were formed. Maybe this will lead to a handover, maybe it will not.'

The image of the Nigerian military remains important to Gen Obasanjo, who joined at the age of 21 and rose to lead government forces into battle during the 1967-70 Biafra civil war. That image had suffered greatly in recent years, he said, by actions such as Gen Babangida's scrapping of the primaries last year and prolonging his rule by eight months.

Military rule for 23 out of Nigeria's 33 years of independence has permanently damaged the political psyche. 'It has disoriented the totality of our political lives, and to some extent our economic lives,' said Gen Obasanjo. 'The military is now unable to perform even its own functions.'

Gen Obasanjo handed over to Shehu Shagari, later overthrown by Maj-Gen Muhammadu Buhari, whose deputy, Gen Babangida, ousted him two years later. The justification for the coup - economic mismanagement and corruption - was generally accepted. But many Nigerians now long for those days, when the naira was worth close to dollars 1, compared to less than 5 cents now, prices were a fraction of today's and the effect of falling oil prices had not taken hold.

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