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Democracy Delayed in Nigeria

General Abacha shows clemency to foes and plans return to civilian rule in three years

AFTER months of pressure from the US and Europe, Nigeria's military ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha, commuted the death sentences of 13 alleged coup plotters and set a three-year timetable to return to civilian, democratic rule.

But his move may not enough be to end international criticism and a possible threat of international sanctions.

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His announcement was broadcast Sunday on Nigeria's 35th anniversary of independence from Britain. And it was the first time in the nearly two years since he seized power and scrapped all democratic institutions that General Abacha has set a handover date for his regime - October 1998.

The arrest and sentencing of political opponents, the suspended prosecution of presidential claimant Moshood Abiola, and the lack of a political program despite a year-long constitutional conference, have brought protests from around the world. Western nations had warned Nigeria of economic sanctions if anyone was executed.

Abacha's speech made some concessions to his critics, but left other crucial issues unresolved. The three-year handover to civil rule is regarded by opponents as too long.

No details were given on the prison terms of more than 40 alleged coup-plotters, who were convicted in a secret trial in July that outraged the world.

And Mr. Abiola, the unofficial winner of the presidential election that Abacha annulled in June 1993, remains in detention facing charges of treason for declaring himself president.

Opposition leaders in Nigeria were quick to condemn the speech.

A spokesman for the Campaign for Democracy, whose president Beko Ransome-Kuti has been sentenced to life imprisonment by the secret military tribunal, said on Sunday: ''We believe that even with the three years, there is no guarantee that [Abacha] is going to stick to it.''

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The British Foreign Office in London said that it regretted ''a lack of commitment to an early handover'' to civilian rule in its former colony.''

The US had given no official reaction a day after the broadcast.

Abacha's speech is likely to achieve two main aims: to buy more time in office, and to prevent tougher international action against the regime than existing measures by the US and Europe.

Those include restrictions on aid, arms sales, and visas for officials. Bilateral, European Union, and World Bank aid has almost dried up anyway as government policies have failed to meet donors' conditions, and Nigeria's arrears on debt repayment has reached $10 billion.

''The only pressure that General Abacha understands is the pressure of economic sanctions. [More than 90 percent] of Nigeria's oil revenues are earned through the export of oil,'' says Randall Robinson, president of TransAfrica, an African-American political lobby, based in Washington.

Mr. Robinson accuses Abacha of diverting oil-export earnings to personal accounts in foreign countries. ''When we are prepared to apply oil sanctions and freeze accounts, then and only then will General Abacha be prepared to move in earnest on the restoration of democracy,'' he said.

Nearly half of Nigeria's oil exports goes to the US, but Washington regards a unilateral ban on Nigerian oil as not likely to be effective. So far, there has been no move to freeze the substantial private assets held by members of the Nigerian regime in Britain and other European countries.

After the delays of the past decade and the annulment of the 1993 presidential poll, democratic programs by Nigeria's military rulers lack credibility both at home and abroad.

Abacha's program, announced nearly two years after he seized power with a promise that his stay in office would be brief, looks even less credible while Abiola is barred from the political process and many of the government opponents and critics are still in jail.

The annulment of the last poll has left deep divisions, especially among Abiola's fellow Yorubas, an ethnic group in southwest Nigeria, who have demanded that the military hand over power to Abiola.

Western nations and Nigerian opponents will maintain pressure on the government to release prisoners. The regime says that Nigeria has no political prisoners, that everyone in jail is charged with a crime and that the fate of Abiola will be decided in court. The trial was suspended early this year, and new judges are being assembled to try him.

Others who have challenged the regime's plan to remain in power have recently been implicated in the alleged coup plot in March.

These include leading politician Shehu Yar'Adua, whose death sentence was commuted; and former head of state Olusegun Obasanjo, who was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Having set out a detailed timetable for the transition via multiparty elections to civil rule, Abacha can expect observers inside and outside Nigeria to hold him to it.

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