ON Nov. 10, Ken Saro-Wiwa, poet and journalist, and eight others were hanged by Nigeria's military government. A month earlier, death sentences of Olusegun Obasanjo, former soldier and head of state, and other alleged plotters were commuted to life imprisonment. What do the differences in the two cases suggest about the Nigerian rulers' real concerns and which external pressures are effective?
Obasanjo was accused of plotting against the regime. Saro-Wiwa was charged with encouraging the murder of four tribal chiefs, presumably supporters of the military government. Conspiring to overthrow the national government is thus a less serious crime than stimulating resistance to the ruling generals at the local level. After all, Gen. Sani Abacha and his ministers had themselves a long record of plotting against governments. But other factors were at work. Saro-Wiwa and his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni Peoples agitated against the environmental practices of Shell Oil and other companies operating in the Niger Delta. They demanded compensation. The ''crime'': threatening economic interests.
As have other companies in similar situations, Shell, producer of half of Nigeria's oil, felt it could not intervene in a local affair. At stake were shareholder interests, market responsibilities, and contractual obligations to the Nigerian government. For the soldiers running the country, plotting against the regime was serious, but agitating against a major wealth-producer was more so.
As an intellectual, Saro-Wiwa represented an even greater threat to the regime than did Obasanjo. Saro-Wiwa ridiculed the generals and officers running the country. Nothing angers a proud and vulnerable political or military figure as much as satire - especially if it cuts close to the bone of truth. Influential intellectuals are especially anathema to authoritarian power. When military figures have power to react, they do.
Pressures from the West appear to be more powerful than those from Africa. Both Obasanjo and Saro-Wiwa were known abroad. Obasanjo moved in the rarefied atmosphere of international conferences, think tanks, and organizations of former heads of state. Those who spoke to the Nigerians on his behalf presumably included not only world leaders but also corporate executives and bankers. Obasanjo and his group were saved from the noose.
Those who pled for Saro-Wiwa's life were the intellectuals: poets, journalists, and environmentalists whom he had met abroad. His advocates also included African-American leaders and, above all, South African President Nelson Mandela. Can it be that in today's corrupt Nigeria the voices of the non-African Western establishment are more potent than anti-apartheid heroes?
As press reports describe the increasingly unpopular regime, it has its back against the wall. Nigeria's economy is in a serious slump. General Abacha and his cohorts fear that any sign of weakness will make them vulnerable to a coup. Some members of the regime apparently regarded the commutation of the Obasanjo sentence as a sign of weakness. In the case of Saro-Wiwa they insisted that weakness would not be repeated.
Following the hanging, the United States, Britain, the Commonwealth of Nations, and others have protested strongly. Various forms of sanctions are being considered. All will be too late to save Saro-Wiwa. But will their efforts now so anger the beleaguered generals that they will reconsider the commutation of Obasanjo's death sentence? Or will the seriousness of the reaction to the hangings moderate their future actions?
Nigeria's tragedy is that Africa's largest nation and the world's largest black nation cannot find democracy and stability. Its many tribal, religious, and linguistic divisions make it difficult to govern and leave it vulnerable to military coups. Abacha's rule is among the most brutal. Furthermore, the Saro-Wiwa case demonstrates once more how difficult it is for outsiders to intervene successfully on human rights issues. Such efforts may even embolden beleaguered regimes.
There was a time in African history when the pleas of the Nelson Mandelas and prominent African-Americans might have been heard. Alas, for Saro-Wiwa and his friends, that day is past.