Nigeria's Dictator Could Sink a Continent

General Abacha's corrupt regime is setting the stage for tragedy in Africa's most populous nation, and a US hands-off policy is only making it easier for him

THE most dangerous leader in the world today may very well be Gen. Sani Abacha, the dictator of Nigeria. He has the capabilities and the motivations to destroy his nation of 100 million people, with tragedies exceeding those of Somalia, Rwanda, and Liberia combined, as well as to wreak havoc on his continent, already reeling from instability in Zaire, Sudan, Angola, Kenya, and Algeria. United States policy is both flawed in analysis and inadequate in response to this potential catastrophe.

Nigeria's armed forces are without question the most corrupt anywhere. Only those of Burma (also called Myanmar) are even vaguely similar, though a distant second. For years General Abacha, his predecessor Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, and other senior commanders have diverted dollars from Nigeria's oil into their own pockets -- by the billions. The preferred mechanism has been the overseas ''dedicated account,'' dedicated, unfortunately, to enriching a selected few. US government officials involved with Africa are aware of this diversion of Nigeria's oil resources.

Even worse, many of the same generals who are embezzling Nigeria's oil revenues are using these funds to finance drug smuggling into the US. By some estimates, 80 percent of the heroin found on the East Coast is brought in by Nigerian gangs that operate under the protection of top officers in the Nigerian military. US purchases of Nigerian oil provide the financing to sustain Nigerian drug smuggling.

Why wouldn't Abacha, by some estimates already a billionaire, want to take his wealth and retire to a life of luxury? Observations of corruption in several countries suggest an answer. There is a depth of corruption which becomes addictive, in the same manner that repeated substance abuse becomes addictive. At the conclusion of his Commonwealth Officers Training Course years ago in Britain, it was recommended that Abacha should not rise above the rank of colonel; he was not considered stable enough for higher command. By now becoming first in corruption, Abacha has become first in a corrupt military leadership.

Recently Abacha announced that he would close the notorious dedicated accounts. He may do so, but he is likely to continue stealing Nigeria's oil revenues via new accounts or by some other means, because of his own need for gratification and his need to enrich the other generals, whose support he must have to remain in power.

Coup rumors abound in Nigeria, and Abacha has reacted to this month's batch by arresting numerous critics of his regime. Former head of state Olusegun Obasanjo's movements are restricted. Democracy advocates by the score are in jail. Fear is circulating that those found guilty of ''plotting'' will be publicly executed.

Dictators freeze time. Nigeria has been frozen in a state of political debate for a dozen years, as successive generals have come to power with vaunted programs for transition to democracy encased in harshly authoritarian administrations.

Abacha's goal is to remain in power as long as possible, and his scenario is approximately as follows: Delay the output of the current debating body, the Constitutional Conference, until mid-1995; take several more months to consider its recommendations; set a two- to three-year timetable for political transition, which projects his stay until 1998; create delays during the transition process of another one or two years; and thereby remain in office until the end of the century.

The problem for Africa and the world is that with Abacha in power Nigeria will not last that long; it will disintegrate. Indeed, dissolution is already the anticipated formula for escape from military rule by many politicians and intellectuals in the country. While the people of Nigeria are energetic and resilient, their commitment to the state is fragile and exhausted. A strong sense of post-independence nation building enabled Nigeria to ''muddle through'' in the past. That commitment is no longer widely felt, a fact many inexperienced observers fail to grasp. Any near-term outbreak of ethnic violence, which occurs every few years even in the best of times, would spread uncontrollably beyond the ability of the military to contain it and likely dismember a once promising nation.

At a recent international conference on Nigeria in Washington, D.C., a senior administration official setting policy for Africa reportedly made three points: 1) a boycott of US purchases of Nigerian oil is not under consideration, 2) the Clinton administration will wait and see what is Abacha's reaction to the recommendations of the Constitutional Conference, and 3) the US will not get out in front of African nations in criticizing the Nigerian regime.

These policies are flawed. First, to take any US options off the table is inept. Second, Abacha has no intention of abiding by whatever timetable he initially outlines for political transition. And third, to base US policies on the policies of other African countries, already cowed by Nigeria's disruptive potential, is extraordinarily weak.

In the case of Nigeria, the US National Security Council's concepts of preventive diplomacy and widening democracy have been suspended. US policy has the effect of lending support to the Nigerian military dictatorship, degrading the lives of the poor and the disappearing middle class, propelling the potential breakup of the country, and facilitating the flow of drugs into the East Coast of the US.

A far stronger response to Abacha and his cabal of corrupt generals is called for, including trade sanctions, asset seizures, tightened travel restrictions, pressure on unpaid debts, internationalization of human-rights concerns, and expanded support for dispirited democracy movements. Without a stronger response, it may become necessary in the future to ask, ''Who lost Africa?''

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