Don't Neglect Nigeria

DID you notice how gasoline prices at the pump have shot up a few cents lately?

They're a small, precursory shock wave in what could become a major eruption in West Africa. If it occurs, it will ``make Rwanda look like a birthday party,'' according to Jesse Jackson, who recently returned from a firsthand look at the situation.

The country is Nigeria. A little history and a few numbers reveal a lot. Chief Moshood Abiola, who won a free and fair democratic election for president in June 1993, has been prevented from taking office by the ruling military regime. (Does it sound a little like Haiti?) Mr. Abiola is now in prison, being tried for treason. The nation's oil workers are striking, calling for his release and installation as president. So far their month-old strike, which has already boosted world oil prices, is about 20 to 40 percent effective. The union is threatening violence to make it 100 percent effective.

Meanwhile, three-way ethnic tensions are rising. Northern Muslims generally support the military leadership, which comes from their ranks. Yorubas and Ibos in the south are clashing over whether to support the oil strike; other labor unions, who have suspended their strikes, may reinstate them. In 1967 the Ibos tried to break away and form their own country. The result was the Rwanda of that decade: The Biafra conflict killed a million people and made refugees of at least a million more.

As the world's 10th-largest oil exporter, with oil accounting for nearly 90 percent of it export income, Nigeria is seeing its domestic economy quickly wither, adding to instability.

A final number to keep in mind: Rwanda had 8 million people; Nigeria is Africa's largest country with some 100 million. The scale of a potential crisis there is sobering.

Here in the United States, President Clinton is concentrating on health care and crime. Ordinary Americans are likely to be trying to enjoy a newsless vacation or, if in a worrying mood at all, are mulling over the looming baseball strike.

But more public attention is needed now to prevent the US from dealing with another huge crisis it would be unable to ignore. Among the lessons of the Rwanda tragedy (see article, Page 19) is the need for more-enlightened diplomacy. Americans can play a vital role by informing themselves, taking part in the debate, and insisting that government pursue early, preventive action.

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