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The Only Way to Dislodge Nigeria's Dictator

Abacha's power springs from oil, and an oil embargo is needed to force him from office

By Paul Beran. Paul Beran is the pseudonym of an investor with years of experience in Nigeria. / November 24, 1995

NIGERIA is at its most critical moment since the end of the civil war a quarter-century ago. Its dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, is increasingly reinforced in the view that he can commit any brutality so long as the West needs his oil. The fate of the nation largely hangs on decisions from Washington and London.

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In September General Abacha dispatched an emissary to Europe for meetings with key officials from Washington to discuss his timetable for return to democracy. A four-year schedule was put forward, to which the United States responded that 18 months should be sufficient. Similar discussions had also taken place with British officials.

On Oct. 1, Abacha outlined a three-year political transition program, noting, however, that ''the timetable will be determined by the time required to complete each phase of the program.'' US and British reactions to this excessively long and vague process were decidedly muted. Abacha interpreted this as weakness.

On Nov. 10, he thumbed his nose at Western leaders by hanging Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoniland writer, environmentalist, and political activist, along with eight others who had been tried and convicted without due process. The inadequacy of US and British reactions to Abacha's flawed political program led Saro-Wiwa and others to the gallows.

Nelson Mandela and John Major organized the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth. The US, South Africa, and European Union countries recalled their ambassadors. Further arms sales and visa restrictions have been announced.

These instruments of statecraft and diplomacy are given importance by Western capitals. But not by Abacha. What motivates him is power and wealth - staying in office and doubling or tripling his estimated billion-dollar stolen fortune. The only instrument that can stir his interest is oil revenues, which the US and Europe seem reluctant to curtail.

What an embargo would do

The US imports one-third to one-half of Nigeria's oil. There are five reasons why a partial or complete embargo should be enacted by the US, together with Europe if possible but unilaterally if necessary:

* First, an embargo will drive Abacha from power, probably within three to nine months. Already, he is unpopular within the top and middle military ranks, and his regime is characterized by more porosity and leakage than any in Nigeria's history. He is feared but not respected, commands the strong loyalty of virtually no one, and seldom ventures out of his fortress, Aso Rock. Deprived of his ability to spread corruption around the upper ranks of the military, Abacha cannot last. Hopefully the change can be bloodless, but in any event it is likely to be far less bloody than Abacha's continued obscene misrule.

* Second, and stemming directly from the first, the departure of Abacha is necessary for preservation of the Nigerian state and for peace in west and central Africa. Without evidence of Western support, democracy advocates are ready to unleash urban violence. Tensions between ethnic groups are explosive. Smaller surrounding countries fear Nigerian instability. All need to see that the West is focusing on the problem and is prepared to make short-run economic sacrifices for longer-term political and humanitarian concerns.