The Nigerian military Government today annulled the presidential elections held 11 days ago and abandoned its promise to hand power back to elected civilians anytime soon.
The announcement was made in a decree signed by the military leader, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who said "these steps were taken to save our judiciary from being ridiculed and politicized locally and internationally."
But Western diplomats and opposition figures in Nigeria, interviewed by telephone from here, dismissed General Babangida's excuse for canceling the elections as a duplicitous attempt to wrap in legal terms what is, in effect, an indefinite extension of military rule.
For one thing, the general's critics said, the military authorities tightly controlled virtually every aspect of the planned transition to civilian rule. Not only did they limit the number of legal parties to two -- the right-of-center Republican National Convention and the left-of-center Social Democracy Party -- but they also named them, wrote the parties' platforms, appointed senior party officials, provided campaign funds and even built thousands of party offices.
"The military has only themselves to blame for this mess," said a Western diplomat with extensive experience in West Africa. He, like many Nigerians, said an orderly transition to civilian rule was doomed from the start because the military authorities were not genuinely committed to the process. Suspend Electoral Commission
In the brief announcement today, General Babangida also suspended the National Electoral Commission, which, since multiparty elections were first announced in 1986, has been the main governmental body responsible for restoring democracy.
The presidential elections, held on June 12 in Nigeria's 30 states, involved chunks of land that are in many instances more populous and wealthy than many African nations. Roughly one out of every four black Africans is a Nigerian.
And although voter turnout was light by past standards, there was no evidence of the violence and vote-rigging that marred the last round of balloting, nearly a decade ago. Foreign observers generally described the elections as free and fair.
Nonetheless, the election results had been delayed after a spate of legal challenges in the Nigerian courts. By most accounts, the most significant lawsuit was brought on behalf of the Association for a Better Nigeria, a lobbying group of wealthy businessmen, politicians and military officers who had led a highly visible campaign urging General Babangida to remain in office at least four more years.
The association had charged that the transition to civilian rule had already been compromised by widespread vote tampering and corruption. Last week the association won a court order restraining the National Electoral Commission from releasing final election results. The military authorities said today that the profusion of court cases had made a "ridiculous charade" of the elections that could eventually "culminate in judicial anarchy."
The nation's ruling body, the National Security and Defense Council, which includes General Babangida and other senior military leaders, met this morning and will meet again on Thursday.
There was no immediate reaction to the cancellation from Moshood K. O. Abiola, the candidate of the Social Democratic Party, who held a sturdy lead over his opponent, Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention, before counting was halted last week by the National Electoral Commission.
Tonight, according to reports monitored here, Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, was calm. Criticism From Soyinka
But leading figures in the country, including Wole Soyinka, a writer and an opponent of military rule, have warned that further attempts to block the transition to civilian rule could plunge the country into anarchy.
"A very tiny but powerful cabal is toying with the future of our nation," Mr. Soyinka said in a statement. "Any further delay in making the people's verdict official is a deliberate cultivation of chaos."
Gani Fawehinmi, a lawyer and human rights worker, said in a statement: "The nation is in danger. It is abundantly clear that the military government is leading Nigeria into a political crisis of immeasurable, chaotic proportions."
The military has been in control in Nigeria for all but nine years since the country gained its independence from Britain in 1960.
It remains to be seen how Nigerians, especially those from the Yoruba ethnic group in the populous southwest, will react to the cancellation. Many Yoruba have long resented the domination of Nigeria's political life by the mostly northern Hausa-Falani ethnic group, and were ecstatic when one of their own, Mr. Abiola, appeared to have won the recent balloting.
Moreover, there is a pervasive sense among Nigerian Christians that the military authorities favor the northern Islamic groups, who make up about half the country's 90 million people. Under Maj. Gen. Mohammed Buhari, General Babangida's predecessor, Christian schools were taken over by the state, and permits to build churches were held up while the construction of mosques increased.
Photo: Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, the military leader of Nigeria, announced the annulment of the recent presidential election. (The New York Times)