THE drumbeat of international pressure on Nigerian dictator Gen. Sani Abacha is growing louder each day. The question now is whether General Abacha will heed it before he leads his desperate countrymen -- and possibly much of sub-Saharan Africa -- into chaos.
Abacha's release last week of former military leader Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo is a sign that he finally may be listening. General Obasanjo led an earlier military government and voluntarily stepped aside for civilian rule in 1979. Recently, he had been among the voices calling for Abacha to set a firm date to do the same.
But Obasanjo was arrested March 13 and charged with complicity in an aborted military coup. His release March 23 was said to be a favor to former United States President Jimmy Carter, who met with Abacha last week. Mr. Carter apparently failed to secure the release of other political prisoners, including Moshood Abiola.
Most Nigerians believe Mr. Abiola, a wealthy businessman, was the legitimate winner of the 1993 presidential election. But the military canceled the results of the election. In June 1994, Abacha imprisoned Abiola.
On March 13 TransAfrica, a pro-Africa lobbying organization in Washington, sent a letter to General Abacha from a group of 55 prominent African Americans. It called on the dictator to ''expedite the restoration of democracy to Nigeria's 100 million people who yearn for it. To do less will result in incalculable damage to Africa's most populous nation and the eventual global economic and political isolation of your regime.''
The US State Department continues with a low-key ''engagement'' policy in Nigeria. It is waiting to see what Abacha does with the recommendations of a National Constitutional Conference now under way. The conference had indicated it would set January 1996 as a date for a return to civilian rule, but recently backed off. Without pressure on him, Abacha could easily find reasons to delay elections into the next century.
With Abacha most likely a billionaire from illicit skimming of oil revenues, and with his supporters piling up illegal wealth from oil and drugs, strong pressure will be needed to convince him to act. A US boycott of Nigerian oil exports would grab Abacha's full attention and might force elections before he bleeds Nigeria dry and leaves civil chaos behind.