Justice for Nigeria

THREE more years is too long for Nigeria to endure the corrupt leadership of Gen. Sani Abacha.

The general's announcement, last Sunday, that he would step down at the end of that period was meant to placate his critics at home and abroad. In fact, it only further disgusted most of them, since it seemed straight out of a dictator's handbook of bogus promises.

Abacha's record of seizing power after nullification of a legitimate election, secretly trying political adversaries, and lining his pockets with Nigeria's oil revenue leaves little room for trust. His continuation in office blocks Africa's most populous - and potentially most prosperous - land from beginning a political and economic revival.

The military's refusal to step down promptly also impedes any movement toward truly representative government in Nigeria, which offers the best hope of relieving the country's chronic ethnic tensions.

Along with his promise of a distant transition to civilian rule, Abacha announced he was commuting the death sentences of a number of those accused of plotting his overthrow. His opponents remain in jail, however, and leading critics of the military regime - notably Moshood Abiola, who won the annulled 1993 election - still face treason charges and the threat of execution.

The regime's human rights offenses, detailed by the US-based TransAfrica and other monitoring agencies, are unmitigated by the general's words.

The option of tightened economic sanctions, including an embargo on Nigerian oil exports, is still available to the US and other countries that have called for change in Nigeria. It should be used to push Abacha toward greater concessions to justice and a shorter timetable for his own departure.

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