LONDON - Two years after Nigeria's military rulers annulled a national election and reasserted the military's grip, western financial, trading and investment interests are intervening to compel a somewhat more democratic system that would enable a freer exploitation of Nigeria's rich resources.
Both the U.S, and Britain marked the anniversary of the annulment with threats to take drastic interventionist steps unless Gen. Sani Abacha bows out and restores a democratic-looking civilian rule.
Growth of a middle class has led to demands for freedom of political organization and more representative government, and this has been supported by a large trade union movement.
In 1986 Nigeria accepted the World Bank's "structural adjustment" program, the negative effects of which can be seen in the soaring of the foreign debt from $23.5 billion then to $37 billion today, while spending on services including welfare has been slashed.
In 1993 the government. then headed by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, was forced to hold a national election (although the two contending parties and their prograrns were both created by the government). It was won by Chief Mashood Abiola, a businessman with fles to British companies. Babangida and the recalcitrant army abruptly annulled the election. In November 1993 Gen. Abacha seized power.
On the first anniversary of the annulment, Abiola proclaimed himself president and sought to set up alternative government. He was arrested and imprisoned. The country was swept by demonstrations and anti-regime strikes, the trade unions nearly shutting down the oil industry that accounts for 90 percent of foreign exchange.
Abacha crushed the strikes, suppressing the trade unions by arresting leaders and taking over union offices and assets. The pro-democracy movements were split by arrests, the driving of leaders into exile and the co-opting of others by bribery.
Among the Nigerian people, however, the movements continued to grow, with a national Democratic Coalition acting as an umbrella to unite the disparate groups.
As the second anniversary of the annulment neared, Abacha's regime carried out waves of arrests. The U.S. and British governments chose this time to demand the restoration of democracy.
On June 8 President Clinton's special assistant for Africa, Susan Rice, threatened to impose sanctions unless there was "swift restoration of democracy and civilian rule." On June 7 the British Overseas Development Minister, Linda Chalker, said Nigeria would be suspended from the Commonwealth unless democracy was restored.
Who and what would replace the Abacha regime? The still-imprisoned Abiola has lost much support and leaders capable of uniting the country have not come forward. If the U.S. and British moves have meaning, the World Bank is holding the next government in the wings.
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