NIGERIA, under the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha, is moving steadily closer to mass violence and political disintegration. But US policy toward Nigeria has remained unchanged for a year and a half: mild sanctions and frequent emissaries. When it comes to promoting democracy, the world's oldest practitioner has lost its voice.
General Abacha arrested Moshood Abiola, the winner of the annulled 1993 presidential election, and threw him in jail without trial last year. But that only whetted Abacha's appetite. Since March of this year he has tried in secret on trumped-up charges of coup plotting some 50 more of his countrymen, including military officers, democracy advocates, lawyers, and journalists. Sentences, which have been passed and await confirmation by his Provisional Ruling Council, include life imprisonment for Olusegun Obasanjo, the respected former head of state; death for ex-Major-Gen. Musa Yar' Adua, a popular progressive northerner; death in absentia for a son of the powerful Sultan of Sokoto; and death for another dozen or so senior military officers who had the temerity to advocate democracy.
Besides these, it has been reliably reported that, following the so-called coup rumors, more than 70 noncommissioned officers were summarily executed in March without trial. But that, too, was done in secret, so last month, in order to demonstrate publicly that he can indeed be capricious and bloody, Abacha pulled 43 people convicted of armed robbery out of jail, some of whom had been languishing for as long as 16 years, and executed them by firing squad.
Thousands of Nigerians have fled abroad to try to escape Abacha's terror, most notably the democracy and human rights advocate, Wole Soyinka, a Nobel laureate in literature. Having almost run out of targets internally, it should not be surprising if Abacha sets his sights on the overseas exiles.
Meanwhile, Abacha is thoroughly enjoying the attention he is getting from world leaders pleading with him to show clemency toward political prisoners. By using his penchant for viciousness he has forced the West to focus on amelioration of pending sentences and brought about a suspension of European and American talk about return to democracy. Communications from the US, UK, France, Germany, the pope, Nelson Mandela, and others, plus a stream of emissaries from Europe, Canada, and Africa, have, in the absence of progressively tougher sanctions on the Nigerian regime, now become counterproductive. Abacha sees cloying as weakness, and he is right.
Nothing in Abacha's character suggests that he wants to become a hero to his people by leading his nation back to democracy. Americans and Europeans should cease hoping that Abacha's hint of future democratic government is a possible outcome of the present situation. This leaves four other possibilities: a coup moving promptly to civilian rule, a coup leaving other military elements in power, prolonged rule by Abacha, or widespread political and economic collapse causing violent disintegration.
Of these, disintegration is, sadly, the most likely. Nigerians of all persuasions want to escape military rule, and the breakup of the state is seen as a way out. Among seven military regimes over a period of 30 years, Abacha's is the only one that has brought Nigerians themselves to call for international sanctions, such as those which contributed to open democracy in South Africa.
The signs of a collapsing state are widely evident in Nigeria. Abacha has disbanded all elected bodies, even down to the local government level. He has delegitimized the judiciary and suspended habeas corpus. The press, formerly one of the liveliest in Africa, has been harassed into docility. Nigeria's outstanding efforts at ethnic reconciliation after the 1960s Biafran war are being undone. The military itself is deeply divided, but dissension is currently cowed. In the face of all this, Western inaction contributes directly to the potential dismemberment of Nigeria, with dire consequences for other fragile nations in the world's most troubled continent.
Winston Churchill said, ''When heads of states become gangsters, something has to be done.'' Writing on Churchill last month in The New York Times Book Review, Henry Kissinger said: ''The ultimate test of statesmanship ... is a combination of insight and courage. Insight leads to assessments that define a society's freedom of action, while courage enables the statesman to act on his convictions before they are generally understood. Great statesmen operate on the outer margin of their society's capabilities; weak statesmen tend to be overwhelmed by events.''
America does not have a statesman in the White House. It has a poll watcher. President Clinton is frightened of military involvements abroad, and on that point he has much public support. But that does not excuse his failure to exert democratic leadership in the post-cold-war world. When was the last time Mr. Clinton spoke out for democracy and human rights? And with his abdication of responsibility, it is the weakest states that suffer the most - Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, Liberia, and, potentially the greatest disaster of all, Nigeria.
The stark choice facing the despairing 100 million people of Nigeria - democratization or disintegration - should elicit from the United States publicly voiced presidential support for democracy and intensified policy pressures against that country's absurdly criminal regime. Anything less disparages the collective character of America itself.