Nigeria is moving toward its third try at democracy since gaining independence in 1960. The first republic, which lasted from 1963 to '66, was based on the British parliamentary system. The second republic, from 1979 to '83, tried a US-style presidential, federal system, but with multiple parties.
This time, says Pauline Baker, an Africa specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Nigeria is trying a model based even more closely on the US system. The goal is to have a functioning two-party democracy in place by 1992.
Indeed, Nigerian officials explain that one of the reasons for the visit here by Olu Falae, Nigeria's senior civilian official, was to investigate firsthand how some parts of the US federal government operate.
The military regime is implementing a five-year transition plan. Nonpartisan local elections - the first step in the plan - were held last year. Partisan local elections will be held in 1989, followed by elections of state governors and assemblies in 1990.
The first national census since 1963 is scheduled for 1991. National presidential and legislative elections will follow in 1992.
``We feel that it is unrealistic for the military to rule for five, six, or nine years and then one morning call in a bunch of guys and hand over power to them,'' Falae says. ``It's an abrupt break with no learning process. We tried that in 1979 and it didn't work.''
A constituent assembly is currently revising the 1979 Constitution to improve safeguards against corruption and misuse of power.
The plan imposes a two-party structure on the diverse society in the hope of containing and moderating existing divisions. Falae says the government will issue strict guidelines so that no party championing geographic, religious, or tribal interests can emerge.
Falae emphasized to the Monitor that the return to democracy and Nigeria's economic reforms, which he also oversees, ``are parts of an organic whole.''
The economy needs to grow to provide more goods and services, Falae says, so the groups currently suffering from the rigorous economic reforms can improve their lot before a return to civilian rule. If the democratic experiment is to succeed, the economy must be made to succeed before 1992.
Nigeria-watchers in Washington agree that civilian politicians and voters need to be convinced that economic responsibility is the key to long-term prosperity if the transition to democracy is to work. If not, many forecast a return to the free-spending ways of earlier governments. They note that a civilian regime might well not have been able to squelch popular protests against austerity as the military did earlier this year.
These specialists say the current regime seems sincere in wanting to hand over power. But it also faces the challenge of protecting any nascent democracy from Nigeria from north-south, Muslim-Christian, and tribal differences have in the past severely challenged national unity.