Leading Article: Nigeria's hopes go unfulfilled

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THE NEWS from Nigeria, the most populous country in black Africa, is not encouraging. True, General Ibrahim Babangida has at last been forced by domestic and international pressure to step down, or backwards, before his self-imposed deadline; and recent political protests have been peaceful. But he has handed over not to Chief Moshood Abiola, the man who, by general consent, won the June elections which the general subsequently annulled, but to an interim government that looks to be largely of his own choosing.

Having made great play about presiding over the transition to a civilian and democratic government, he has passed the torch to an unelected civilian-cum- military regime which he may seek to control from behind the scenes. It is headed, nominally at least, by Ernest Shonekan, a Yoruba from the same southern city as Mr Abiola. Less in his favour is his loyalty to General Babangida, as proven by his readiness to front the transitional council that prepared the June elections.

The true colours of the new regime are revealed by the appointment of General Sani Abacha, the outgoing defence chief, as Vice-President. General Abacha was co-author with General Babangida of the military coup of 1985, and it was he who announced it to the world.

The chief task of the new government is, theoretically, to prepare to hand over power to a freshly elected president by the end of next year, a goal of questionable genuineness that seems less and less likely to be achieved. Its real role is more probably to maintain the status quo, keep the military united and powerful, and ensure that there is no serious investigation of the corruption in which the governing elite is steeped. Fear that Mr Abiola might tackle those Augean stables may have clinched General Babangida's decision not to hand over to him.

Since that fateful move by his former friend, Mr Abiola has made the mistake of staying too long abroad. His initial decision to leave the country to avoid the risk of arrest was understandable. But he has spent too much time drumming up support in London, Paris and Washington. In his own country he risks being seen as not just lacking in courage but also increasingly irrelevant.

So far there do not, happily, seem to be the makings of another civil war in Nigeria. But there are ample grounds for protests from pro-democracy organisations, including the trade unions. The main demand of the oil workers, that General Babangida should step down by 27 August, has been met. Should they none the less decide to strike, the sector that provides about 90 per cent of the country's foreign earnings will be paralysed. Living standards have already plunged. A further decline, plus heavy-handed treatment of dissent and suspected continuing military oversight, could create a spiral of instability.

With Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Angola, Zaire and South Africa in various stages of turmoil or civil war, those hoping peace and something like democracy might come to the African continent had looked optimistically to Nigeria. So far the worst has been avoided, but those hopes remain unfulfilled.