Leading Article: Taking over the mantle from Nigeria's military

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TOMORROW one of Africa's last military regimes, that of President Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria, will take a much delayed and tentative step towards democracy. Nigerians are being allowed to chose between two parties, the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Convention. The leader of the winning party will be sworn in as president in August.

The parties are not genuine free associations formed by like-minded people; they are 'parastatal' parties, cardboard cut-outs set up by President Babangida and the military government. He chose their names, wrote their constitutions, selected their staff and provided them with funds and offices. They were allowed to choose their leaders, but even that process was manipulated by the president, who ended up with two men who have been loyal to him in the past and will, he hopes, continue his policies.

In most countries such an arrangement would be a sham, but Nigeria, which dislikes military rule while appearing unable to handle democracy, has yet to find a system that works. At least the election will bring change. The military has ruled Nigeria for the past 10 years and for 22 out of the 33 years that Nigeria has been independent. Soldiers justify their rule by arguing that they are above politics. Uncorrupted by soft living, they are supposed to be able to take tough decisions that a civilian government could not.

Yet Nigeria's economic crisis has steadily worsened during military rule, despite the oil wealth. The country's external debt - dollars 29bn ( pounds 20bn) at the end of last year - represents more than its gross domestic product. Inflation is running at 80 per cent; per capita income has fallen by three-quarters in 10 years; money supply is wildly out of control.

President Babangida has regularly promised reform and adjustment but his government has constantly fudged the big decisions. So the new government will inherit a floundering economy in addition to political divisions in Nigerian society that have never looked more raw since the end of the civil war. Most serious are the north-south and Christian-Muslim divides which threaten to tear the country in half.

At one time Nigeria saw itself as Africa's heavyweight, speaking and acting for the continent, but it is one of the last to move towards democracy, and then only tentatively. It no longer leads political fashion in Africa. In fact, its influence barely extends along the west African coast. It is providing the leadership and most of the troops for the west African peace-keeping force in Liberia, and is becoming more deeply embroiled in the civil war there. Unless it co-ordinates political action throughout west Africa to produce a political solution, it may find its peace-keeping force becoming an army of occupation.

Whoever inherits these problems as the election winner will be regarded as merely the civilian creation of a military government. The new government's first act should be to step away from its military sponsor and call a national conference to find a mandate for ruling this huge, diverse country of individualistic people.