LAGOS, NIGERIA — KEN SARO-WIWA'S days as a campaigner for the right to self-determination of the Ogoni people in oil-rich southeast Nigeria appear to be over, at least while Gen. Sani Abacha remains in power.
A special tribunal in the south coastal city of Port Harcourt on Tuesday sentenced him and three others to death for ''counselling and procuring'' the savage murder of four Ogoni chiefs last May.
The sentence of death by hanging handed down by three Army-appointed judges must be approved by head of state Abacha's ruling military council, which is facing a storm of protest from Western governments and environmental groups over the severity of the sentences and the alleged injustice of the trial.
Despite Abacha's pledge on Oct. 1 to create democratic structures and hand over power in 1998, the two-year-old Army regime's treatment of dissenters has grown increasingly harsh. At the same time Abacha wants to avoid the international disapproval turning into economic sanctions.
Under Mr. Saro-Wiwa's charismatic leadership, Ogoni demands for self-determination and a fair share of oil revenues turned into a movement for secession and posed a serious challenge to the federal government's control of Nigeria's oil wealth.
Saro-Wiwa was known as a popular writer until 1990 when he transformed the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) into an internationally recognized campaign for minority rights. He became president of MOSOP and of the Ethnic Minority Rights Organization of Africa, and received praise and awards from the international environmental groups.
The Ogoni are one of 20 ethnic groups who make up the 6 million people living in the Niger delta who do not control a single Nigerian state and have little influence over national politics. This oil-producing area provides over 90 percent of the country's exports and 80 percent of government revenue, but has received little benefit from the mineral wealth.
It has also suffered environmental damage from oil operations. In the Niger delta, towns and villages lacks electricity, fresh water, roads, and public clinics.
In 1992, the Ogoni leaders gave an ultimatum to the government and the oil companies to pay $10 billion in royalties and compensation for pollution or leave. In 1993 there were clashes with the oil companies, who have stopped all operations in Ogoni, and a series of attacks on Ogoni villages, which Saro-Wiwa says were the work of the Army.
Big foreign oil companies have tightened security amid concerns they could face a backlash over the death sentences, the Associated Press reported Thursday.
Saro-Wiwa's hard-line approach caused bitter divisions with moderate traditional rulers in Ogoniland, including the four who were murdered, who had advocated dialogue to get a better deal. The youth wing of Saro-Wiwa's movement sparked a riot that led to the murder of the four chiefs.
A British lawyer for the human rights group Article 19, observing the trial earlier this year, concluded that the special tribunal was biased in favor of the prosecution. He said that the evidence against Saro-Wiwa from a parallel trial of another nine accused of the same murders amounted to double jeopardy.
''Events and proceedings leading up to the trial [and] conviction of the Ogoni leaders expose the fact that the trials were flawed from the beginning,'' the Constitutional Rights Project (CRP) said in a statement in Lagos after Tuesday's verdict.
''We deplore the death sentences passed on Ken Saro-Wiwa and his co-defendants following a flawed judicial process,'' said a British Foreign Office spokesman in London on Tuesday. ''We urge the Provisional Ruling Council to commute these sentences.''
British opposition parties have called for sanctions against Nigeria, which became independent from Britain in 1960. Earlier this year Britain's overseas aid minister Lynda Chalker said she doubted whether Nigeria would be welcome at the summit meeting in Auckland this month of the Commonwealth, comprised of Britain and its former colonies, who have pledged to uphold democracy and civil rights among the members.
Of the Commonwealth's African members, the only remaining military regimes are in Nigeria and the tiny nations of Sierra Leone and Gambia, which have received military aid from Nigeria. ''I earnestly hope that this sentence will not be carried out,'' said Commonwealth Secretary-General Emeka Anyaoku, who is a Nigerian.
Abacha shows little sign of interest in the Commonwealth. The regime is more concerned by a possible embargo on Nigeria's oil exports or a freeze on the offshore personal assets of leaders of the regime.
Here the US and the European Union hold the keys. The US buys half of Nigeria's oil, and Spain and Germany much of the rest. The Nigerian generals and the civilians in the Nigerian government have traditionally invested their offshore wealth in Britain and other parts of Europe.