Nigeria at a Crossroads

IF Nelson Mandela's South Africa is the shining star of the continent, Gen. Sani Abacha's Nigeria is bidding for the title of Africa's darkest black hole. Not that human suffering on the scale of Rwanda has taken place there yet. But keep these facts in mind: One out of every four sub-Saharan Africans is Nigerian. Its 90 million people make it the largest African country.

Tensions between ethnic groups in Nigeria are long-standing. And General Abacha's corrupt and oppressive military regime is exacerbating them.

Human-rights monitors and governments around the world are watching carefully for the results of the secret trials of those accused of plotting a military coup against Abacha last March. Newspapers are reporting that 40 individuals have been convicted, and that 14 have been given the death penalty. Britain, from whom Nigeria gained independence in 1960, and the United States are among the many governments around the world that have condemned the secret trials.

The trials appear to be part of Abacha's strategy to maintain indefinite rule in Nigeria. He has announced he will set a schedule for a return to democracy on Oct. 1. But that is likely to be the first of many delaying tactics to allow him years of absolute authority. With billions of dollars in oil revenues flowing through government hands, there are lucrative reasons for Abacha and associates to hang on to power. Last spring, African-Americans acting through the group TransAfrica, called for action against the Abacha regime, including an oil boycott. While there is always the danger that boycotts will hurt the poor, hitting Abacha and friends in their wallets is the best way to gain their attention.

The international community, led by the Commonwealth countries and the US, should demand that free and fair elections be announced quickly for a date certain in the near future. Moshood Abiola, jailed for winning the last presidential election in 1993, should be released. The death penalties against the supposed coup plotters should be set aside. The life sentences reportedly handed down against Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, the only Nigerian military ruler to voluntarily give up power (in 1979), and 11 others should be nullified.

Otherwise, an oil embargo and a freeze on assets on foreign soil ought to go into place. Among noneconomic actions, a prohibition on international sports competition should be introduced. The Commonwealth has already said it may exclude Nigeria from its November meeting in New Zealand.

General Abacha is marching his country backward, against the winds of democracy that are blowing throughout Africa and the world. It will take the concerted efforts of governments and individuals, inside and outside of Nigeria, to turn him around. The stakes are too high not to make that effort.

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