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Squelching of Nigerian Elections Is Problematic for the West, Africans

THE decision by Nigeria's military dictator, President Ibrahim Babangida, to scrap the results of the country's recent presidential election - judged generally free and fair by foreign observers - has serious implications for the West as well as for Africa.

It also poses a dilemma for Nigerians: If they react violently to the decision, the military could clamp down even further, possibly wiping out democratic gains the country has made in recent years, said several Nigerians contacted by telephone.

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For the Clinton administration, the events in Nigeria provide a chance to show how serious its pro-democracy policy for Africa is and how effective such a policy can be.

After the cancellation of the election results was announced in Nigeria on Wednesday, US State Department officials said they were cutting about $1 million in aid to Nigeria immediately and reviewing another $22 million the United States had promised.

But US aid to Nigeria is so minuscule compared with the country's gross domestic product of $5.4 billion that a cutoff is not likely to have much impact.

Other American options include withdrawing the US ambassador and imposing economic sanctions, possibly in concert with European nations. British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said yesterday Britain was halting its military aid to Nigeria and reviewing all other assistance.

If the US, and possibly other countries, stopped buying Nigerian oil, Nigeria would feel the pinch. But that kind of action might only hurt the average Nigerian, says Osita Ogbu, a private Nigerian economist.

"I'd rather see Nigerians take care of this themselves," he says.

Mr. Ogbu says civil disobedience is likely if General Babangida's promised change to civilian rule by Aug. 27 does not occur. Asked whether Nigerians might fear a military clampdown if people react publicly, Ogbu says: "People can not be intimidated."

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Babangida is expected to address the nation in the next few days to explain why he annulled the vote. An Associated Press report yesterday said Babangida is considering turning over power to another military ruler who would share power with a civilian parliament elected last year. Dueling businessmen

Results released earlier from 15 of Nigeria's 30 states indicated millionaire industrialist Moshood Abiola was well ahead of rival candidate Bashir Tofa, another wealthy businessman. But release of further results was blocked by the Abuja High Court on June 15 at the request of a group believed to be comprised of wealthy businessmen and military officers who want to prolong military rule.

Mr. Tofa claimed the elections were rigged, and called for fresh elections. Both men are friends of Babangida.

Initial reaction from the Nigerian public to cancellation of the elections was mild. There were no reports of riots or strikes.

But concern over the possibility of unrest persists. If there are violent protests, says a Nigerian engineer, Babangida "will suppress even the few freedoms we have, seizing newspapers, banning all the [country's professional] associations." The business groups have provided an outlet for criticism of the regime. "When you go to the streets, you create an opportunity for him [Babangida] to crack down," the engineer adds.

Nigerians predict some sort of civil disobedience will occur before long. "I bet some people are working underground" to plan such a move, says a Nigerian journalist. But it takes a lot to get Nigerians motivated to participate in such actions, he says: "We don't have a deep-seated culture of violent reaction."

Despite earlier postponements of a transition to civilian rule by Babandiga, who seized power in 1985, many Nigerians have clung to the hope of a peaceful handover of power in August. Now they are disillusioned.

"I believed him when he said he would hand over on Aug. 27," says Ogbu, the economist. "The election was a vote for national unity." He and other Nigerians contacted point out that the elections were the first in which a candidate garnered strong support across political, ethnic, and regional lines.

Babangida's delay amounts to "a carefully laid down plan not to hand over to civilians," says the journalist. Now, the military dictator is likely to leave power only "by coup or heavenly intervention," he adds. A signal is sent

Babangida's decision to hang on to power, at least for now, also sends a signal to the rest of Africa, says one US State Department official. "We are concerned about the larger rippling effect in a number of countries, which have undertaken some fairly heroic measure in the last few years to get democratic institutions established," says Edward Brynn, acting assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Mali, Niger, and Benin are examples of countries that might be affected by Nigeria's example, he a dds.

In all three countries, democratic leaders have been elected, but the military is still quite strong. In Togo, a military dictator has been pushing off promised elections for more than a year. In Uganda, a former military rebel leader who is now head of state has been in power since 1985 without presidential elections.

Each country in Africa has its own dynamics, culture, history, and ethnic makeup, says one US diplomat, so there may be no large ripple effect. But the Nigerian example "creates a kind of psychology [among both Africans and Westerners] that Africa can't make it [to democracy]," he adds.

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