THE fate of a former head of state and 39 others recently convicted in Nigeria for treason or conspiracy await a decision by Gen. Sani Abacha, the head of the military government.
After a round of arrests in March, the accused were tried by a secret military tribunal. Nigerian authorities have revealed neither the precise charges nor circumstances leading to their arrests.
The security net was extended from more than 20 servicemen to include retired generals Olusegun Obasanjo and Shehu Yar'Adua, and some lesser-known civilians.
In 1979 General Obasanjo became the only military ruler since Nigeria gained independence to hand over power to an elected civilian government. Since then, he has become a respected African elder statesman and a critic of subsequent military regimes in Nigeria. His former deputy, General Yar'Adua, has become the most formidable politician in Nigeria outside the government to mount pressure on General Abacha to hand over power by the start of next year.
Last Thursday three former British prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher, Edward Heath, and Jim Callaghan, joined dozens of governments and leaders around the world, including Pope John Paul II and United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali appealed to Abacha to release Obasanjo and show clemency toward the others.
"Obasanjo has enhanced the image and status of Nigeria internationally," said the message, also backed by former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. "Nigeria is at a watershed. We appeal to you to show statesmanship. This is a time to heal wounds and build Nigeria's future."
Hopes for leniency
Concern for those charged in the alleged coup attempt increased Saturday when 43 convicted armed robbers were quickly executed by a firing squad. Ghana's president, Jerry Rawlings, and South Africa's first deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, were in Nigeria, apparently to plea for clemency for Obasanjo and the other alleged coup plotters.
There were signs yesterday that the Abacha government might finally be heeding its foreign critics. The Nigerian newspaper THISDAY quoted a spokesman for the government as saying that "there is every reason to believe that Abacha will be very sympathetic to these [clemency] pleas by the international community."
The spokesman described Abacha as "a compassionate man."
Earlier the military regime dismissed criticism of its record on human rights and democracy by Nigeria's principal donors and trading partners, Britain and the US, and warned that their policies could jeopardize good relations.
Nigeria's foreign minister, Tom Ikimi, accused the two countries of providing havens for Nigerian dissidents abroad and of allowing access to their media to opponents who threaten the stability of Abacha's military regime.
Relations between Nigeria and the US and Europe have been strained since the previous military leader, Ibrahim Babangida, scrapped five years of political reform in 1993 by refusing to recognize presidential elections. Last year, Abacha's government arrested millionaire Moshood Abiola, unofficial winner of the 1993 presidential election, on treason charges when Mr. Abiola tried to declare himself president.
Although Mr. Ikimi assured the two envoys that international investments in Nigeria were safe, the regime appeared to turn its back on efforts by Western nations to moderate the hard line of Abacha on human rights and democracy. This is a high-risk tactic as pressure mounts on Western governments from leading critics abroad to impose on Africa's most-populous nation more punitive measures - possibly sanctions against oil exports.
Some leaders of an oil workers' strike and others who backed Abiola's claim are in detention without trial or in exile.
Oil embargo called for
Exiled members of the opposition coalition Nadeco are campaigning abroad against the military regime and have been joined by well-known Nigerians such as Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel prize for literature. Before his arrest, Obasanjo was expected to call for the freezing of offshore assets of the members and beneficiaries of the regime. Most of these assets are in Britain, Western Europe, or in banking havens.
The Washington-based lobby TransAfrica, which played a leading role in US sanctions against South Africa, has already called for an embargo on the export of Nigeria's oil. Although at this stage it still seems unlikely that the call would win UN Security Council support, the US government is crucial to this issue. The US is the main consumer of Nigerian oil. There is a powerful lobby of US businesses to ease current restrictions, such as the ban on official credits to Nigeria. The country is feeling the effect of this restriction on its most important foreign-export project after oil itself, a planned $3.6-billion liquefied natural-gas plant.
British Aid Minister Lynda Chalker recently warned that Nigeria was unlikely to be welcome at the meeting of the Commonwealth countries in New Zealand in November unless the regime showed leniency to the alleged coup plotters and announced an election timetable.