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Why Nigerians now favor military rule

If a referendum were held tomorrow on whether Nigeria should choose a civilian or a military government, the men in uniform would win by a landslide. The current mood is a dramatic reversal from last August, when Nigerians reveled in participating in the largest exercise in adult suffrage in the continent of Africa.

Why has Nigeria, viewed until recently as a democratic role model for the rest of Africa, moved so fast to acclaim the new military rulers who took over in a virtually bloodless coup on New Year's Eve?

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Consumers in Nigerian marketplaces, angry at leapfrogging prices, will tell you. So will a businessman at his wits' end because he is unable to meet the bribe to secure an import license that would replenish his shrunken stocks. So will teachers and civil servants who have not been paid in months.

They have sized up the already falling prices and the austerity imposed by the new military government and compared it with the extravagance and corruption of the ousted civilian administration. They haven't a shadow of a doubt where their preference lies.

A Lagos woman lamented: ''The cost of everything quadrupled. It's no exaggeration to say that a car tire went up from 59 naira to 200 naira (approximately $77 to $260). While a few were swimming in gold, the rest suffered. It was too high a price for democracy.''

The amounts of money massed either by jet-set and jet-owning businessmen or high-ranking government officials have incensed the public, which is faced with mounting unemployment and ever increasing prices.

As a result of a military search last week, 3.4 million naira (more than $4 million) in cash was found in the home of the ousted civilian governor of Kano State, Alhaji Sabo Bakin Zuwo. The former governor of Benue State, Aper Aku, was arrested after fleeing to the neighboring country of Cameroon. Over 200,000 naira and (STR)10,000 (about $14,000) in cash was found on him. The federal government says that money recovered from politicians now in detention - it amounts to millions of naira - will be used to pay outstanding salaries and debts.

The philosophical merits of civilian or military rule are meaningless to the masses, alleges a leading member of the Yoruba community, the predominant ethnic group in Lagos and western Nigeria. For many of the poor who must struggle to survive, the bottom line is ''who delivers the goods,'' he says.

''I want a democracy,'' this man says. ''I want the freedom to choose. I don't want to be forced at the muzzle of a gun.'' But if he had to choose between the ousted civilian administration and the new military government, the military would win his vote.

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''There is a lesson we need to know,'' he says, ''and the military really drives it home. The civilians should have performed better. They fanned hatred and sectionalism. Everybody was at daggers drawn.''

The view that Nigerian democracy opened the way for party politics and all the divisiveness that brought is found all over this vast country, which is larger than California and Texas combined.

In the Muslim north, a student rationalizes that democracy is a danger ''because it brings clashes.''

The malfeasance and venality of many politicians has aroused Nigerian indignation about Western government and the Western news media's distaste for military government, and it has aroused disappointment at the collapse of Nigerian democracy.

''No, we don't see this as a backward step,'' insists one of a group of Nigerians in Lagos relaxing after a day's work. ''We are happy with the change. It brings sanity to the whole setup. Eventually the government will turn out to be a corrective one. Once they have achieved control, I think the military will hand back government to the civilians.''

Another member of the group chimes in: ''In a way this government is more democratic because it is accepted by the federal public.''

Even some diplomatic sources, who were excited about last year's democratic elections and saddened initially by the New Year's coup, have moderated their views.

Many point out that a distinction must be drawn between Nigeria's new military leader, Maj. Gen. Muhammad Buhari, and ''radical upstarts'' from junior military ranks who have seized power in other countries, trying to run their countries without prior administrative experience.

''Buhari is no Idi Amin or Sam Doe,'' says a diplomat, separating him from the former dictator of Uganda and the present leader of Liberia. Buhari is widely traveled, is a former state military governor, and is widely considered to have been capable in his former post of oil minister in a previous military government.

Diplomats also point out that while Nigeria may now have authoritarian rule, it is not a totalitarian state. And although the Constitution has been suspended and political parties banned, the press continues, as a diplomat put it, to be ''very free and very irresponsible and will probably continue to do so.''

Western criticisms of a military takeover have predictably drawn tart responses from many Nigerian newspapers.

Writing in the National Concord, one of about 10 daily newspapers selling on the streets of Lagos, columnist Yakubu Mohammed says:

''A democracy gets instant recognition from the so-called Western democracies and their free, liberal press. Nigeria is hailed as blazing the trail of democracy and freedom and leading other African countries in this direction. It was all sweet. It was all freedom at its best. Our vibrant press is regarded as the freest anywhere in Africa.''

But he goes on to say: ''Has the Western press ever bothered to compute the cost of democracy to Nigerians?''

Sonala Olumhense, writing in the Guardian, tends to view Nigeria in the broader perspective. ''We must come back to trying to ensure that we are not forever shuttling between disastrous civilian regimes and the uncertain rhythm of the military.''

Many thoughtful Nigerians have not forgotten how earlier military takeovers have been greeted with patriotic fervor only to subsequently let down their supporters.

A Lagos businessmen applauded what the new government had done so far but his support was qualified. ''They have yet to announce their economic (goals) and how they intend to (go about achieving them). That will be the time to judge them.''

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