Nigeria Faces a Democracy Test

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The votes aren't all counted in Nigeria's presidential election, and that's just part of the problem. With the ballots from 31 of the country's 36 states in, the favorite, General Olusegun Obasanjo, is more than five million votes ahead, and his opponent, former finance minister Olu Falae, is charging widespread voter fraud as the reason why. So far, international observers say only that the cheating has been done by both sides. But the election broke down pretty much as expected, with Obasanjo sweeping the northern territories that are home to the military elite that supports his candidacy and Falae taking the south.

Despite four decades of independence, the trappings of electoral democracy proved to be something of a novelty for Nigeria. There were no significant policy differences between candidates -- Obasanjo didn't even show up for a televised debate. Besides voting early and often, some Nigerians had reportedly been voting their pocketbooks, selling the franchise for $1.10, and neither candidate's party had much of a history or an ideology. Yet millions of Nigerians turned out to vote for a civilian government to end 15 years of military rule.

Obasanjo is the only Nigerian military dictator ever to have relinquished power to an elected civilian government. That was back in 1979, although his elected successors were overthrown by General Ibrahim Babangida in 1983, and the military has governed ever since. Falae is a Yale-educated economist who served as Babangida's finance minister, although he campaigned against Obasanjo on the grounds of the general's links with the military. The deeper issue may be tribal: Falae and Obasanjo are both members of the Christian Yoruba tribe from the southwest, but Obasanjo has the backing of much of the north, the Muslim Hausa-Fulani elite who run the military. The Yoruba and the southeastern Igbo people are bitterly resentful that successive military governments have plundered the wealth derived from the rich oil fields of the impoverished south.

The presidential race between two southerners reflected a new consensus among the generals that rescuing the country from its dolorous economic and political condition demands transferring power to a civilian southerner. Although the current military leader, General Adulsalam Abubakar, pledged a return to democracy after taking power last June, a skeptical electorate may take some convincing - after all, the military simply annulled the results of the last presidential election in 1993. Turnout was below 20 percent in some regions during last weekend's legislative poll -- and even then there were allegations of irregularities. Although Saturday's turnout was far larger, restoring Nigeria's faith in democracy may yet take years.