Leading Article: Nigeria needs a clear message from Britain (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Online

THE TURNOUT for the presidential election held on 12 June in Nigeria may not have been overwhelming: the voters were sceptical of an election in which the parties were set up, funded and directed by the military regime. Nevertheless, it was regarded by both Nigerian and international observers as the fairest in the country's 33 years since independence. It was a step towards democracy and produced a winner in Chief Mashood Abiola, who could show that he enjoyed nationwide support.

The cancellation of the election by President Ibrahim Babangida was proof, if proof were needed, that whatever his head tells him about the need for an elected civilian government in Nigeria, in his heart he will not and cannot surrender power. For a while it looked as if Mr Abiola was going to stand by his mandate courageously and honourably. But his party is deeply divided. He knew that if he did not do a deal with the military men, others in his party would and he would be left in the cold. He has chosen the easier option of acting as the civilian veneer to a military regime. There is little chance that he will assume real power as president on 27 August, when General Babangida has said he will hand over to a civilian.

In compromising with the military, Mr Abiola has confirmed the scepticism of the Nigerian electorate. He has also made it very difficult for Western countries to pursue their mission of democracy in Africa. In Nigeria they are left supporting a broken reed. Elsewhere the leaders of the continent's absurd but dangerous armies will be watching with interest how Western governments react. If Nigeria can get away with continued military rule, why not in their state, too?

Britain has stopped new aid to Nigeria to express disapproval of the cancellation of the election, but is continuing to sell weapons to the Nigerian soldiers. Diplomats will argue that leverage is limited. But the fact that every single government south of the Sahara has had to make some concessions to multi-party democracy is proof of the power of Western countries in Africa. Led by the United States, they have forced Africa to adopt free market economics and to hold real elections. Britain argued for a while for the vague expression 'good governance' rather than democracy but it, too, has been swept up in the drive for multi-party democracy.

Nigeria may be the rock on which that mission founders. Apart from Benin and Zambia, few of the new democracies are working. The old argument that Western-style multi-party democracy leads to ethnic, religious and tribal strife is proving to have some validity.

Arguably, what African countries need is not a sudden election in which everything is up for grabs but a well managed, open debate on what sort of government best suits their circumstances. This constitution-making process would also ask what role the military should have, and even whether any African country needs an army at all. Until this takes place in Nigeria, Britain should tighten the screw on General Babangida and his generals and make it clear that their departure is a condition of good relations with this country.


In yesterday's leader about Nigeria, we criticised Chief Mashood Abiola - victor in the recent election - for striking a deal with the military regime. Overnight Mr Abiola said he would accept no role in the interim government. Our criticism was therefore misplaced.