It was a sweeping announcement, replete with promises of free elections, a return to civilian rule and freedom for all political prisoners.

For a country in search of democracy, there wasn't much more that Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar could have offered. He even denounced the transition plans of his predecessor, the late dictator Gen. Sani Abacha.But Nigerians have heard countless promises in their 38 years of independence, and for many, Abubakar's pledges this week only raised new questions: Why didn't he name an interim government? Why is he waiting until early next year to hold elections? And why did he fail to set a date for the ballot?

Anyone who expected celebrations in the streets of Nigeria - a country crippled by years of military rule and desperate for political freedom and economic progress - doesn't understand Nigeria.

Even the most callous dictators in this West African nation, the continent's most populous, quickly learn the tunes of empty political promises. Abacha, whose death last month ushered Abubakar into power, staged his 1993 coup and then announced that he intended to introduce real democracy.

In reality, though, Nigeria's post-colonial political history has been a litany of coups and military rulers. Nigerians, in turn, have become a people steeped in political cynicism.

So it was no surprise that reaction to Abubakar's announcement Monday night was mixed, a combination of wait-and-see optimism and utter disdain.

Much of the praise for the speech came from common Nigerians, who must suffer through the country's astonishingly crumbled infrastructure. These people saw more hope in promises of pay reform and better telephone systems than in vows of democracy.

Since he has been in office, Abubakar has been warmly welcomed by Nigeria's international critics, and his speech this week was one more cause for praise. British Foreign Office Minister Tony Lloyd called his program "the best news we have heard from Nigeria for a long time."

It's the West, in part, that Abubakar was addressing.

He rules a country that by all rights should be living the good life, thriving on huge oil reserves. Instead, it is marred by corruption, neglect and political isolation; only a tiny percentage of Nigerians live well. With the West's help - including debt relief, trade agreements and an end to travel restrictions on junta leaders - Abubakar knows his country could flourish.

Abubakar does have an established track record, albeit brief. He already has freed dozens of political prisoners and met with some of the country's top opposition leaders. He admits that corruption has done great harm to his country.