Nigeria Sets a Timetable

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Nigeria's military ruler has laid his cards on the table: He'll hand over the reins of power to an elected civilian government next May. Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar announced Monday night that an elected government would take over on May 29, 1999, replacing the discredited political and electoral machinery established by his predecessor, General Sani Abacha. "The handover to civilian rule has been the key demand of the opposition," says TIME reporter Clive Mutiso. "Indications had been that the military planned to indefinitely postpone the transition, and opposition groups weren't going to stand for that." If they believe Abubakar is sincere, they're likely to ease up on demands for an immediate transfer of power to an interim civilian government.

Fierce ethnic and regional conflicts make it difficult for civilian politicians to muster national electoral support in a country that has known only nine years of civilian rule. One of the few politicians capable of uniting the nation might be recently released prisoner General Olusegun Obasanjo. Obasanjo has support both in the rebellious south and among his former colleagues in the military -- and he's the only Nigerian military ruler ever to have handed over power to an elected civilian government.