JOHANNESBURG — SOUTH AFRICAN President Nelson Mandela has finally gotten tough with Nigeria - but critics say he abused his moral authority by appeasing the military dictators with many months of quiet diplomacy.
The 52-member Commonwealth Summit in New Zealand on Saturday suspended Nigeria after it ignored international appeals for clemency and hanged nine minority-rights activists, including prominent writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. The organization threatened expulsion if Nigerian leader Gen. Sani Abacha did not make moves to restore democracy.
Mr. Mandela was a driving force behind the unprecedented punishment by the Commonwealth, which links Britain's old empire. He mobilized the support of the African caucus and expressed revulsion over Nigeria's flouting of the Commonwealth's 1991 principles of human rights and democracy.
For many observers, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate wasted vital time with his previous insistence on diplomatic pressure. This sent the wrong signal to Africa's largest country and was ironically soft, considering that Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) benefited from international sanctions against apartheid during its liberation struggle.
The Democratic Alternative group, a pro-democracy organization in Lagos, said Mandela should take responsibility for Mr. Saro-Wiwa's death.
Mandela "had the opportunity to save the lives of the nine human rights activists, but he opted to fold his arms while they were being slain. We are disturbed that our appeal to Mandela to take decisive steps against the military regime had fallen on deaf ears," said an official of the group, Imme Edigeji.
In its defense, Mandela's 18-month government has wanted to distance itself from the bully boy approach of white apartheid predecessors who destabilized neighboring regimes they didn't like. South African officials said the various high-level envoys sent to Lagos had produced results, such as preventing the execution of alleged coup plotters.
"I was correct in trying to persuade the Nigerian authorities to consider clemency," Mandela told New Zealand television.
The international community is now waiting to see whether he will act more vigorously.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a major anti-apartheid figure who visited Nigeria earlier this year as Mandela's envoy, has called for economic, diplomatic, and sports sanctions against the country.
Mandela previously argued that sanctions could destabilize the continent and that expulsion from the Commonwealth would erode its clout over Nigeria.
The Commonwealth has said Abacha's promise that elections and a return to civilian rule will not occur for at least three years is unacceptable. It also called for the release of 43 alleged coup plotters, including former head of state Olusegun Obasanjo as well as the release of the presumed winner of Nigeria's annulled 1993 elections, Chief Moshood Abiola.
Monitor contributor Paul Adams reports from Port Harcourt, Nigeria:
While this oil town was outwardly calm after the hangings at the civilian prison here, the people were inwardly resentful at the death of a man who they feel spoke out bravely for the minority tribes of the Niger delta in southeastern Nigeria.
"None of those hanged did the murders," said an Ogoni and active member of Ogoni minority rights movement MOSOP, who is in hiding from the security forces. "We all know who did them, but the police were not allowed to investigate.
"As soon as the murders happened, the state government called in the Army to run the investigation, and they just picked up Ogonis near the scene at random and arrested Saro-Wiwa and declared him guilty," he said.
The late leader of MOSOP and the other activists were executed 11 days after they were sentenced by a special tribunal for the murders of four rival Ogoni politicians in May 1994 and less than 48 hours after the Provisional Ruling Council of the military regime confirmed the sentences.
The hangings drew an instantaneous and vigorous international outcry.
Yet the passive acceptance of the hangings here, despite local sympathy with those executed, underlines the helplessness many feel in this part of Nigeria, which produces most of the oil wealth for Africa's most populous country, but receives little economic benefit or political influence in return.