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Promise of democracy lies crushed beneath the boots of Babangida: Nigerian journalist Kayode Soyinka says that his country is on a treacherous path

IBRAHIM Babangida, Nigeria's military ruler, has plunged the country into its greatest political crisis since the Biafran war, by annulling the 12 June presidential election result that was to have restored democracy after 10 years of military dictatorship.

When he came to power on 27 August 1985, General Babangida was thought to be taking up temporarily the burden of black Africa's most populous state and biggest economy. But he has turned out to be a military dictator with no intention of giving up power - worse than Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire or Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo.

After eight years of his rule, he has gathered virtually all military powers to himself by either buying support or destroying all opposition. There is nothing like a government treasury or a proper budget. He and his wife openly spend government money as if it was their own. Corruption is a way of life for him and, under his government, it has reached a level unprecedented in black Africa.

Nigeria obtains 90 per cent of its revenue from oil, all of which should be paid into a federation account, and shared among the federal, state and local governments, and the oil-producing areas. But Babangida's military government opened five 'dedication accounts' with Swiss banks, to which about 40 per cent of the oil revenue is diverted.

Not one barrel of crude oil can be sold without the general's personal approval, and he controls disbursement of all the money paid into the dedication accounts.

Today, he is reputed to have greater personal wealth than Mobutu. Babangida alone knows how much he is spending on the military and the peace enforcement operation in Liberia: the payments are made mainly through a London merchant bank and Swiss banks.

Under his rule, all the institutions built up before and since independence from Britain in 1960 have virtually been destroyed or become ineffective - such as Nigerian Railways, Nigerian National Shipping Lines, Nigeria Airways, the universities, the hospitals and the judiciary. Unemployment and inflation have reached unprecedented levels. When the general came to power, one naira was worth USdollars 1.60; now it is less than 5 cents.

When General Babangida toppled the government of Major- General Muhammadu Buhari, with the support of the military hierarchy in the south and the minorities in the north, he immediately appointed Christian commanders for all the four divisions of the Nigerian Army in Ibadan, Kaduna, Jos and Enugu, because he feared that Buhari represented the Hausa/Fulani interests of the north.

He courted the Israelis and the Christian commanders of his own army. Then, after stabilising his control and determining to woo the Hausa/Fulani Muslims of the north, he secretly made Nigeria a member of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), and proclaimed himself an ally of Islamic nations of the Middle East and northern Nigerian Muslims. The truth, however, is that Babangida has neither permanent interests nor permanent friends.

What does the future hold for Nigeria? The first problem to be solved is that of the army itself. What Nigeria now has are politicians in military uniform, masquerading as army officers. They exploit the resources of the state ruthlessly, mainly for their own benefit; very few army officers in Nigeria today can justity their enormous personal wealth.

Of the country's six coups since independence, four have been army-against-army, and two army-against-civilians. So until the army problem is solved, no other issue can be tackled effectively. The tragedy is the open and brazen manner in which the military steals money and displays its wealth. With her oil revenue and other resources, Nigeria should be in the same development league as Malaysia, Singapore, Korea and Taiwan. But under army rule for 23 of its 33 years of independence, growth has come to a standstill.

The south, whose oil and other resources provide 95 per cent of the country's wealth, has been continuously deprived of political power, as well as control of the economic power that is exercised at federal level.

Moshood Abiola, the winner of the presidential election on 15 June, was given a mandate that cut across ethnic frontiers. He won 10 of the northern states, and made gains in Iboland in the east, and among the minorities in the south-east, who traditionally vote with the conservative north. If Babangida had allowed the result to stand, Abiola would have had greater democratic power than any other elected president.

The widespread support for Chief Abiola demonstrates that people will elect any Nigerian, regardless of religion or ethnic origin, whom they think will govern equitably. The military's reaction to Abiola's election shows that a clique of army officers, and some civilians with vested interests, are part of Nigeria's problem, not the solution.

Nigeria could now cease to be a single entity. If the oilfields had been in the north rather than south, the Hausa/Fulani would probably have seceded a long time ago. The international community has a responsibility in this matter. If Babangida is allowed to succeed, his manipulations could become a precedent for other nations of black Africa. The interests of the West and of Africa are the same. It is not a Nigerian internal problem alone; it has much wider political and economic implications. A compromise was reached last week on an interim civilian government, after Babangida threatened to dissolve all elected bodies and throw local council members, governors and members of the House of Assembly and Senate out of office. While the agreement would reportedly exclude Chief Abiola, the military has not yet revealed its details.

The government will set up a committee, made up of members from the two main political parties and the military regime itself, to choose a new administration, which would take power on 27 August, the day Babangida had promised to return the army to the barracks.

Whatever the role for Chief Abiola, it appears certain that a new government would not be elected, but would be appointed by committee. Babangida has defied the protests of the world community and the verdict of the Nigerian electorate. He has opened the way to instability in Nigeria. Now that he has rejected a southern victor of the presidential election, the south would probably reject any northern candidate who might win a fresh election. Babangida is playing the north-versus-south card, which will create a stalemate and enable him to remain in power.

The new arrangements should be rejected by the international community, as well as Nigerians. The sanctions and other measures should remain in place. Nothing but the restoration of genuine democracy and acceptance of the 12 June presidential election result should be considered to be acceptable.

The proposed new process will be so manipulated by the military that a puppet president acceptable to Babangida will emerge. The military dictator has again embarked on a grand deception.

Kayode Soyinka is London Bureau Chief of 'Newswatch', Nigeria's weekly news magazine.

(Photographs omitted)