Confronting Abacha

DIPLOMATIC pressures seemed to work earlier, when Nigeria's military rulers commuted the death sentences of another set of political opponents. But not this time. On Nov. 10, Gen. Sani Abacha brushed aside international pleadings for clemency and executed writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa and other activists from the oil-rich Ogoniland region.

The general, apparently, was more swayed by sentiments within his own ranks than by any amount of outside condemnation. An old hand at coups himself, he's wary of any move that might be interpreted as weakness and plant the seeds of his own overthrow.

How can such a man be forced from power? Diplomatic pressures have multiplied since Saro-Wiwa's death. The Commonwealth has suspended Nigeria's membership. Arms sales to Nigeria have been cut off. International loan deals are canceled.

Such efforts should be diligently pursued. But there's little assurance Abacha will heed them. He and his lieutenants care primarily about lining their pockets with Nigeria's oil wealth.

That wealth can be choked off, ultimately, by embargoing oil and seizing the military's overseas assets. Such moves are politically and technically difficult, but they have to be kept in prospect. Meanwhile, Washington should take the lead in planning economic sanctions that escalate toward an oil embargo. This could destabilize Nigeria, but nothing will hurt the country more than allowing Abacha to go unchallenged.

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