WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT Clinton weighed in more firmly late last week on the side of the embattled Nigerian democracy movement. He sent Jesse Jackson as a special envoy to the military rulers who had jailed the apparent winner of its annulled elections, Chief Moshood Abiola, and other democracy advocates.
Nigeria is facing crushing strikes and demonstrations that have shut down gasoline stations and transport. Concern is growing in United States government circles that any further collapse in law and order might lead to an explosion of ethnic or regional discord, possibly affecting tens of millions of people. The Nigerian Labor Congress has called for a general strike on Wednesday.
Now back in the US, Mr. Jackson said Saturday in Atlanta he is concerned war is imminent in Nigeria, warning such a development could dwarf even the Rwandan catastrophe.
``The United States has a real obligation now to put forth rather quickly a comprehensive African policy,'' he said. ``The world has a big interest in steering Nigeria away from civil war.''
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, also carrying word from Mr. Clinton, traveled to Nigeria over the weekend. They are carrying letters from Clinton to Gen. Sani Abacha, the head of the military government, expressing ``the president's personal concern'' over the jailing of Mr. Abiola and other democracy advocates ``who have expressed views critical of the Nigerian government and organized peaceful opposition,'' according to a White House statement. ``President Clinton said the current wave of unrest in Nigeria results directly from the absence of progress toward the restoration of civilian democracy,'' said the statement.
The face-off between the United States and Nigeria is similar to the standoffs with Haiti over exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide or with Burma over jailed democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In all three cases, military officers have jailed or expelled clearly popular leaders, and efforts ranging from blocking visas to economic sanctions have failed to bend the knees of the generals.
The Jackson delegation suggested that the military hand over power to a group of credible Nigerian civilians, but General Abacha responded that his ruling junta was credible enough to steer the nation to democracy, the Associated Press reported from Lagos, Nigeria, citing sources who requested anonymity. Nigerian Police battled with pro-democracy demonstrators in the nation's two main cities on the same day.
In June 1993, after years of military rule, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida organized two political parties, wrote their platforms, funded them, and allowed elections to take place. But when Abiola, a wealthy ethnic Yoruba chief from the Southwest, began to surge in the results, the elections were stopped and annulled. Later General Babangida was replaced by Abacha.
With 90 million people and a daily oil production of 2 million barrels a day, Nigeria is a major player in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nigeria's ambassador to the US, Zubair Mahmud Kazaure, said in an interview that ``concern is highly exaggerated'' because violent demonstrations and strikes by oil workers have been confined to a few areas around Lagos and oil production areas.
``The rest of the country is calm,'' said the ambassador, and ``the military government is moving toward democracy.''
``Abiola and his supporters are opposed to democracy and try to take power without going through a democratic process,'' the ambassador said, referring to efforts by Abiola to declare himself president in June. Abiola was arrested on sedition charges, and oil workers went on strike July 4 demanding his release. The government has since jailed union leaders and democracy advocates. Meanwhile the economy, already devastated by the falling value of the naira as oil wealth was squandered and stolen, went from bad to worse.
The ambassador claims there is little danger that the present political crisis could lead to ethnic fighting which has troubled Nigeria in the past. In the late 1960s over a million died and millions were uprooted when ethnic Ibo Nigerians tried to secede in the Biafra civil war. More recently, ethnic battles have left hundreds dead and injured in many regions of Nigeria where its many tribes and religions compete for resources and power.
Many analysts believe that Abiola's apparent election victory was blocked because the Muslims in the North have always controlled the army and the government. Even though Abiola is also Muslim, he is a Yoruba from the southwest. ``The ethnic issue is right on the surface - ethnic fragmentation is a real possibility,'' said a Congressional staffer.