Nigerians Protest the Delay Of Democratic Rule
A LONG-SUFFERING ELECTORATE
PEOPLE demonstrated in the streets of Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, for the second day July 7 in the first organized civilian protest against the military government's manipulation of this country's electoral system.
The demonstrations are part of a week-long effort to force the government to accept the undeclared results of presidential elections held June 12. Moshood Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was the apparent winner in voting that was widely regarded as fair by most sections of Nigerian society and by international observers.
The results were annulled by President Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria's military ruler, who nonetheless continues to insist he will hand over power to a civilian government on Aug. 27, provided there are fresh polls. He has aborted Nigeria's transition to democracy three times in the past three years.
But analysts here worry that manipulation by General Babangida could drive a wedge between the civilian politicians and the popular demand for the result of the June polls to be upheld.
Babangida met with officials of the country's two political parties on July 5 and suggested they form an "interim national government." This government would contain members of both parties - which were created by the Army - who would rule the country for six to 12 months while fresh elections are set up.
Babangida was to meet with the parties' leaders again July 7, and if he succeeds in bringing about this arrangement, the result could be an effective extension of military rule.
Babangida has banned Mr. Abiola and Bashir Tofa, his rival candidate from the National Republican convention (NRC), and ordered both parties to field new candidates for a new round of balloting. This has split the two parties. The NRC is in favor of another election, having performed badly with a weak candidate last time. The SDP insists it won fairly in June.
If the two parties do not agree on the issue, Babangida will press them to form a national government consisting of members of both parties, according to Abiola's aides. The role of the military under this proposal is not yet clear, nor is the position of Abiola.
The annulment of the elections at the end of June was the fourth setback to democracy under this widely unpopular government. Each time the long-suffering Nigerian electorate grows more cynical.
"There is a feeling of deep disillusionment as well as anger," says a young banker in Lagos, where there is strong backing for Abiola. "This government just doesn't want to go. The excuses are an insult to people's intelligence. The elections were fair, and we hope that the international business community will come to our aid."
Now there are signs that they have had enough of this regime. Although the predicted violent reaction in the big southern cities to the banning of Abiola did not occur, and the political parties appeared unable to challenge the government, an umbrella organization called the Campaign for Democracy, which is becoming the focus for civilian protest.
Nigeria is entering the second day of a mainly peaceful protest against the military government's agenda, which has brought the sprawling former capital to a halt. The protest is being run by the Campaign for Democracy's chairman, Beko Ransome-Kuti and other leaders of this umbrella group for civil rights groups, mainly based in the southwest.
Abiola urged the protesters to use restraint. At a rally outside his house on July 5, he told supporters: "This is not a civilian versus military issue. The Army voted overwhelmingly for me on June 12. The majority of the Army are not antidemocratic."
Markets and businesses have been closed for several days, and public transport is scarce here.
The main road through Lagos was blocked by barricades, burning tires, and a large crowd on foot. On July 5 and 6, both marchers and vehicles carried small branches, a Nigerian symbol of peaceful protest and a necessary precaution against attack or harassment.
The parties have failed to provide leadership in this crisis, and there are signs that they are losing the initiative as the president's ultimatum and the protests in Lagos move in opposite directions.
The police are staying out of the way of the protesters, and they are tacitly sympathetic with the demonstration.
The government has threatened to declare martial rule in states where the civilian governors fail to keep order. If Babangida calls in the troops in Lagos, it will be a test of their loyalty to the president and of the unity of the armed forces.