U.S. gives nod to Nigeria's new ruler
But pushes for timely democratic electionsJune 9, 1998
Web posted at: 11:02 p.m. EDT (0302 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States threw its support behind Nigeria's new leader Tuesday, while pressing him to keep his pledge to end military rule with democratic elections by October.
In his first national broadcast as successor to dictator Sani Abacha, who died Monday of an apparent heart attack, Gen. Abdusalam Abubakar said he was fully committed to completing a transition to democracy initiated by the late general. But he didn't say how he intended to proceed.
President Clinton's administration views Abubakar as better able than Abacha to champion a democratic transition, State Department spokesman James Rubin said.
Abacha's death thrust Nigeria deeper into political uncertainty. Abubakar, who was chief of defense staff, was sworn in Tuesday to replace him.
"We generally regard him as someone who's capable of taking this historic decision, and we very much want him to do so," Rubin said. The United States is Nigeria's biggest international trading partner.
A more moderate leader?
Asked if Abubakar was more "moderate" than Abacha, Rubin replied: "That will be determined by his decision, but we are hopeful in that regard."
Another U.S. official said that while Abubakar has been "receptive and positive towards us ... we don't know really how much (political) strength Abubakar has. We don't know how much latitude he has."
During a recent visit to Africa, Clinton avoided Nigeria to protest Abacha's regime. Hundreds of opposition leaders were imprisoned or executed during his five years in office.
Nigeria's main opposition group said it won't back Abubakar's appointment, and called for street protests on Friday.
But the United States was willing to give the new ruler a chance, saying he has a "historic opportunity to open the political process and institute a swift and credible transition to civilian democratic rule."
U.S.: Free political prisoners
Speaking at a news conference, Rubin said that would mean: freeing political prisoners; ensuring respect for basic freedoms of speech, press and assembly; and returning Nigeria's army to its "rightful position as a professional armed force committed to defending the constitution and civilian rule."
Rubin stressed the importance of an "open and level playing field" for all candidates who want to run in Nigeria's elections.
"We want this transition to make it possible for there to be a return to civilian democratic rule by October 1, 1998," he said.
Some observers argue that now is the time for the United States to pledge U.S. investment in exchange for democratic reform in Africa's most populous country.
"We should go there sort of with the carrot approach," advised Rep. Donald Payne, D-New Jersey. "Nigeria is at the crossroads. Africa is at the crossroads."
A bloody history
Nigeria has been ruled by a military government since December 31, 1983, with a succession of leaders taking the helm since its civil war, the bloodiest in African history.
Although the country is rich in minerals and vast oil reserves, political instability has prevented its 115 million people from prospering. The gross national product is only $271 per person.
"It's a major country. It has the potential to be the giant of Africa, far outstripping South Africa, if Nigeria can overcome its very endemic, long-standing political problems," said Adonis Hoffman of the World Policy Institute.
Nigerian army rulers have repeatedly promised, and repeatedly delayed, the restoration of democratic rule.
Abacha seized power in 1993 during the political turmoil that resulted when the military canceled a presidential election as votes were being counted.
The credibility of his promises to restore democracy evaporated in April when all five government-sanctioned parties nominated him as sole candidate for presidential elections scheduled for August 1.
The United States and other nations protested that such an election would be undemocratic.
A 'well-respected' soldier
Abubakar, a career soldier who has never held high political office, did not mention any August 1 election in his brief acceptance speech Tuesday.
Rubin called Abubakar a "well-respected professional soldier." According to other officials, he received some U.S. military training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
"He hasn't come across as a guy who is power hungry, and he seems to take a genuine interest in the integrity of the military as well as broader questions of stability. Those are the main things that distinguish him," one official said.
The official added that Abubakar appears to be a "credible guy" who could mediate between different factions in the military.
However, this official acknowledged that there are still many unknowns -- among them how Abubakar, who was not the most apparent successor to Abacha, got the top job.
He said it was too early to know if Abubakar's ascendance may be a sign from military rulers that they want better relations with the United States and the West in general.
Questions about Abacha's death
Meanwhile, some U.S. officials said they questioned Nigerian authorities' statement that Abacha died of natural causes.
"The honest answer is, we can't confirm the cause of death ... We've heard rumors he died of other than natural causes but we can't confirm them," one official said.
So far, the United States has had no official contact with Abubakar, but is considering reviving a diplomatic mission to Lagos, Rubin said. The mission was called off earlier this month, because the Nigerian government said it would receive the diplomats only if Washington lifted some visa restrictions.
Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering was to have led the mission, with a mandate to promote a return to democracy and civilian rule in Nigeria.
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