Nigerians contemplate the price of democracy

MONEY talks in Nigeria, and never more so than during the campaigns that have led up to today's first round of presidential primaries to decide which two candidates will contest the 5 December elections for the right to lead the country after a return to civilian rule next January.

Twenty candidates have entered the primaries, to be held each Saturday over the next six weeks, in the quest for nomination by Nigeria's only two legal parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC), both created and funded by President Ibrahim Babangida's seven-year- old military government.

While vote-buying has traditionally tarnished Nigerian elections since independence from Britain 32 years ago, many observers argue that spending on this year's campaign is unprecedented. One SDP candidate, a multi-millionaire businessman, Arthur Nzeribe, has said he has pounds 25m in his war chest. At rallies, presidential hopefuls are expected to pay the crowds who turn out, local government officials, dancers, and often the journalists covering the event.

'This could lead to a moneytocracy . . . a government of moneymen for more money for themselves and for those who paid their initial bill for their elections,' General Olusegun Obasanjo, head of state in 1975-79, said in a recent lecture.

The two parties also got into the act by imposing levies of pounds 10,000 to pounds 13,000 on each candidate, ostensibly to reduce the number of contestants from the original more than 60. 'The moneybags have hijacked the parties,' Segun Ogundimu, who withdrew from the race, told the independent Lagos newspaper, The Guardian. 'I was under the impression that the government was keen on creating a new political culture. It was as if the presidency is for sale.'

The leading candidates for the NRC, whose political base runs from the Hausa-Fulani people of the north-west to the Ibos of the east, are a former minister of industries, Adamu Ciroma, a former intelligence chief, Umaru Shinkafi, and a newspaper publisher, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu. Frontrunners in the SDP, which is dominated by the Yoruba people of the south-west and minority ethnic groups in central and north-eastern Nigeria, include a former finance minister, Olu Falae, a former army chief of staff, Shehu Musa Yar'adua, and ex- Senate leader Sola Saraki.

The sources of the candidates' campaign funds and their past behaviour have been investigated by the State Security Service (SSS), but the National Electoral Commission said on Thursday that it would not exercise its right to ban candidates without explanation until after the primaries.

Some human rights activists have charged that such bannings could create enough instability to allow Gen Babangida to fulfil what they allege is his 'secret agenda' - to stay in power. Despite the President's repeated vow to leave office next January, the past month has seen increased calls from pro-government groups for the military to remain. 'We believe that their leaving now would amount to abdication of authority to imminent future chaos and disorder,' a group known as the Third Eye said in a recent two- page newspaper advertisement. 'The anarchists must not have their way to divide our nation.'