US, Commonwealth Must Keep Pressure on Abacha

As it is, Nigeria's dictator senses tacit acceptance of his tyranny

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Indications have grown in recent weeks that Nigeria's dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, will prolong the political process that purportedly will return his country to democracy. It is scheduled for completion in 1998. Reduced pressures on him from the United States and the Commonwealth to devolve political control and observe human rights are encouraging the general to slow things down.

Among the signs pointing toward delay:

*Tampering with the democratic transition plan started in mid-August, when the presidentially appointed electoral commission delayed approval of registration of political parties. Associations that met every criteria, including evidence that their membership ranks exceeded 1 million, must wait to see if their submissions qualify them as authorized parties.

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*General Abacha has again dangled the bait of creating more states, a sure way of buying himself years in office. Described by some Nigerians as "madness," adding a suggested six new states to the present 30 would divide Nigeria's 100 million population into units averaging less than 3 million each, further strengthening the central government and maximizing Abacha's opportunities to procure local support with his petrodollar slush fund.

*Abacha's government is preparing an eccentric plan called "Vision 2010," which has the earmarks of a trial balloon for his continued stay in office. The economy is in the worst shape since independence in 1960. Abacha, meanwhile, rips off hundreds of millions in oil revenues every year. Again, a national health plan extending to 2005 has been put aside, while clinics and hospitals, cynically called "mortuaries" by some, are virtually out of drugs. The local pharmaceutical industry is operating at 10 percent of capacity.

*Highly placed northerners in Abacha's home region, previously optimistic that the return to democracy would take place on schedule, are now expressing serious doubts. Politicians all over the country, burned three times during the long and ultimately canceled run-up to democracy under Abacha's predecessor, Ibrahim Babangida, now observe the same pattern from the current regime. They are not likely to invest heavily again in elections they suspect will never take place.

How do you steal up to $1 billion annually, put forward an eight- to 10-year health plan, launch a 15-year economic development plan, and simultaneously convince your countrymen and the world that you are stepping down in 1998? To the contrary, Abacha is thinking long term, while the economy sinks and the political process is delayed and subverted.

Although the chance that Abacha will ever return Nigeria to democracy is remote, the US and the Commonwealth continue to send him mixed signals. Abacha regards diplomatic dialogue as legitimization. That was the essence of the failure of Donald McHenry's 18-month role as US special envoy to Nigeria. Engagement with dictators in the absence of tough talk and substantive pressure is counterproductive. Last month, Illinois Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun had a warm meeting with Abacha in his stronghold and then called for "fairness" in dealing with what is arguably the most repressive regime in Africa. She brought back a letter from Abacha to President Clinton, expressing the hope that Mr. Clinton would achieve a "resounding victory" in the upcoming election.

Also last month, Congressman Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico was dispatched by the White House to Abacha. Mr. Richardson has a long record of dealing effectively with dictators, including having walked out on Abacha once before. But this time he was apparently sent with what is tantamount to a reversal of US policy, weak as it is - a plea that Abacha take steps toward democracy and human rights as a means of initiating closer dialogue with the Clinton administration.

The Commonwealth suspended Nigeria's membership in November after the hanging of writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others, but since then has proven spineless. An eight-nation Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) was appointed to prod Nigeria on human rights and democracy, while Britain, reprising its role in South Africa, argues fallaciously that economic sanctions would only hurt the poor. Canada, a rising voice in the Commonwealth, is incensed with the British position and has threatened to withdraw from the CMAG.

Meanwhile CMAG has been locked in a diplomatic wrangle about Nigeria over terms for a proposed visit - a fact-finding mission with access all over the country or a courtesy call on the capital Abuja? The eight CMAG foreign ministers plan a Sept. 28 meeting in New York, which is likely to delay any further sanctions decisions and secure Abacha in his view that his extended stay in office is tacitly accepted.

Wole Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature and Nigeria's foremost intellectual, has said that Nigeria is a "duty," which he and others owe to its people in trying to restore democracy and renew prosperity. The Commonwealth certainly has a duty and the US at least an obligation, and thus far both have failed utterly to convince Abacha that he should worry.

The Clinton administration is reportedly planning a presidential trip to Africa early in a second term. Nigeria is not on the itinerary, but hopefully the trip will include opportunities to peer elsewhere into the faces of the worst poverty on earth. To do so would perhaps move the president to return home with a new focus on Nigeria, a country that Mr. Soyinka describes as the "open sore of a continent." The president ought to recognize that US oil purchases cannot continue to finance a tyrant, prolonging his dictatorship in the continent's most populous country. Only with such action might Nigeria survive.

*Paul Beran is the pseudonym for an investor with years of experience in Nigeria.

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