CHARLES KRAUSE: The leader of Africa's most populous nation, Gen. Abdusalami Abubakar, was sworn in as Nigeria's president in June.
GEN. ABDULSALAMI ABUBAKAR, Head of State, Nigeria: I do solemnly swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
CHARLES KRAUSE: At 56, General Abubakar is the latest in a long line of military rulers who've governed Nigeria almost continuously since the country gained independence from Britain in 1960. At the time, Nigeria was one of Africa's most prosperous nations because of its vast oil resources. But today most Nigerians live in abject poverty, while much of Nigeria's oil wealth has reportedly been siphoned off by the military. General Abubakar's predecessor, for example, General Sani Abacha, was president for five years and is said to have amassed a personal fortune of between 3 and 10 billion dollars before his death this summer.
Nigeria's Brutal Past
In addition to his reputation for being corrupt, Abacha was also notoriously brutal, condemned worldwide for human rights abuses, including the public hangings in 1995 of nine government critics. Among them was Nigeria's Nobel Prize Winning author Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had protested environmental damages related to oil exploration. Before becoming president, Gen. Abubakar was a high-ranking member of Abacha's government. But within days of taking office he did an about face, promising elections and an end to military rule by next year.
Gen. Abubakar also promised to release scores of political prisoners, among them Moshood Abiola, who by most accounts was the winner of Nigeria's last presidential election in 1993. But instead of becoming president, the military annulled that election and put Abiola in prison, where he remained for nearly four years. Then, with his release reportedly close at hand, Abiola died of a heart attack in July and his supporters took to the streets. A member of the Yoruba tribe, Abiola was from the oil rich southern part of Nigeria, and the rioting that accompanied his death was yet another reminder of the strong regional and tribal differences that divide Nigeria, a nation with more than 250 distinct ethnic groups. The violent protests could have offered Gen. Abubakar an excuse to postpone the democratic reforms he promised. But, instead, he went on national television to reconfirm his determination to release political prisoners and bring an end to military rule.
GEN. ABDULSALAMI ABUBAKAR: The election of a civilian president will be held in the first quarter of 1999.
CHARLES KRAUSE: In Washington recently, General Abubakar was received at the White House, a sign of Nigeria's importance as a source of oil for the U.S. market and the billions of dollars American oil companies have invested there. The meeting with President Clinton was also a sign the United States approves of General Abubakar's moves toward democracy. At the United Nations in New York, the general called on the U.S. and Europe to reciprocate by ending sanctions imposed to protest Nigeria's human rights record. Our interview with General Abubakar took place at his hotel in New York shortly before he addressed the general assembly.
Time For Democracy
CHARLES KRAUSE: Mr. President, thank you very much for joining us. Tell me why you and your colleagues in the military, after all these years, have decided that it's time for Nigeria to become a democracy.
GEN. ABDULSALAMI ABUBAKAR: Well, the military did not take over power to perpetuate itself, our role in Nigeria, and the military was hoping to correcting -- and stabilize the country in the hand over to an elected government. This has always been the hope of the military.
CHARLES KRAUSE: But at the same time, you and your colleagues have been in power now for almost 40 years. Why now?
GEN. ABDULSALAMI ABUBAKAR: All along - as far back as 1979, '72 -- the military have been wanting to hand over, but because of one thing or the other, the politicians, the civilians, fail to do things correctly and the military thought they should intervene to correct these anomalies.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Do you anticipate that the military will back a candidate in the elections that you have called for next February?
GEN. ABDULSALAMI ABUBAKAR: I don't see the military backing any candidate. We have instituted an electoral commission. Naturally, we will support the electoral commission to make sure that free and fair elections are conducted and we leave the choosing of the leaders to the generality of Nigerians, whom they want, who they think is capable of leading our country.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Would you be prepared to invite international observers to Nigeria to ensure that these elections are free and fair?
GEN. ABDULSALAMI ABUBAKAR: Right. Happily, the various international organizations - the United Nations - the commonwealth, the EU countries have offered to assist the electoral commission in training of the voters, in logistic planning, and the commission has already sent invitation to these organizations; come the election day they are gladly welcome.
CHARLES KRAUSE: What role do you see for the military after the transition to civilian rule?
GEN. ABDULSALAMI ABUBAKAR: Well, before the military came into power they have a traditional rule provided by the constitution, that is guarding the territorial integrity of Nigeria, both by air, sea, and land, so necessarily the military will go back to that role, which they are even playing at this particular time.
CHARLES KRAUSE: But now the last time your country had a presidential election in 1993, Mr. Abiola won apparently and the military overturned the result, annulled the result, because apparently they didn't like the fact that he might become president. Can you guarantee that that won't happen this time?
GEN. ABDULSALAMI ABUBAKAR: No. If you recollect, destiny brought me to my position today. The other times that military staged coup and came into power, so for one reason or the other they stand to be accused of manipulating the elections or whatever. But this time around I don't think there will be any justification to think we'll manipulate the elections. We will make sure that justice is done. And that's why we have established an independent electoral commission.
Improving The Economy
CHARLES KRAUSE: Now Mobil Oil and a number of the major oil companies have large investments in your country. Do you view that as a positive for your country?
GEN. ABDULSALAMI ABUBAKAR: Indeed, the oil companies are doing a great job. We need each other. We need their technology - they need our oil - we need the revenue, and I think that we welcome their investment.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Are they supportive of your decision to return the country to civilian rule?
GEN. ABDULSALAMI ABUBAKAR: Necessarily, they are supportive, because for any economy to survive, there must be peace and developments in the country
CHARLES KRAUSE: Now, from what I understand, President Clinton has indicated to you that the economic sanctions which the United States has imposed on Nigeria will be reviewed as long as your plan goes forward to hold elections and return the country to a democratic government, is that correct?
GEN. ABDULSALAMI ABUBAKAR: Yes. Not only the president, the other organizations, the international communities like the EU, the commonwealth, all come out supporting our move and said that they would do the best we can to make sure we implement the right democratization process, and also take measures to improve our economy.
Ready For Change?
CHARLES KRAUSE: And finally, your country, the largest country in Africa, in some ways the richest country in Africa, has had terrible problems over the years governing itself. Do you think that the country is ready for this transition that you called for to democracy?
GEN. ABDULSALAMI ABUBAKAR: Well, even the United States, which I believe is over 200 years old now, there are still problems. They are learning to better the system. Ultimately, the system has been improved -- so also in Nigeria, we are just - we became independent in 1960, which is really 30 years or so ago. Definitely, we are learning. We are making mistakes, and these mistakes are being corrected, and definitely we'll continue to improve on the system.
CHARLES KRAUSE: President Abubakar, thank you very much for joining us.
GEN. ABDULSALAMI ABUBAKAR: Thank you very much, indeed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That report was prepared before the gasoline pipeline caught fire in Nigeria, killing at least 700 people.