NIGERIA is at its most critical moment since the end of the civil war a quarter-century ago. Its dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, is increasingly reinforced in the view that he can commit any brutality so long as the West needs his oil. The fate of the nation largely hangs on decisions from Washington and London.
In September General Abacha dispatched an emissary to Europe for meetings with key officials from Washington to discuss his timetable for return to democracy. A four-year schedule was put forward, to which the United States responded that 18 months should be sufficient. Similar discussions had also taken place with British officials.
On Oct. 1, Abacha outlined a three-year political transition program, noting, however, that ''the timetable will be determined by the time required to complete each phase of the program.'' US and British reactions to this excessively long and vague process were decidedly muted. Abacha interpreted this as weakness.
On Nov. 10, he thumbed his nose at Western leaders by hanging Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoniland writer, environmentalist, and political activist, along with eight others who had been tried and convicted without due process. The inadequacy of US and British reactions to Abacha's flawed political program led Saro-Wiwa and others to the gallows.
Nelson Mandela and John Major organized the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth. The US, South Africa, and European Union countries recalled their ambassadors. Further arms sales and visa restrictions have been announced.
These instruments of statecraft and diplomacy are given importance by Western capitals. But not by Abacha. What motivates him is power and wealth - staying in office and doubling or tripling his estimated billion-dollar stolen fortune. The only instrument that can stir his interest is oil revenues, which the US and Europe seem reluctant to curtail.
What an embargo would do
The US imports one-third to one-half of Nigeria's oil. There are five reasons why a partial or complete embargo should be enacted by the US, together with Europe if possible but unilaterally if necessary:
* First, an embargo will drive Abacha from power, probably within three to nine months. Already, he is unpopular within the top and middle military ranks, and his regime is characterized by more porosity and leakage than any in Nigeria's history. He is feared but not respected, commands the strong loyalty of virtually no one, and seldom ventures out of his fortress, Aso Rock. Deprived of his ability to spread corruption around the upper ranks of the military, Abacha cannot last. Hopefully the change can be bloodless, but in any event it is likely to be far less bloody than Abacha's continued obscene misrule.
* Second, and stemming directly from the first, the departure of Abacha is necessary for preservation of the Nigerian state and for peace in west and central Africa. Without evidence of Western support, democracy advocates are ready to unleash urban violence. Tensions between ethnic groups are explosive. Smaller surrounding countries fear Nigerian instability. All need to see that the West is focusing on the problem and is prepared to make short-run economic sacrifices for longer-term political and humanitarian concerns.
* Third, contrary to common opinion, an oil embargo will scarcely affect average Nigerians, for the simple reason that oil revenues are not benefiting average Nigerians now. Per capita income has already plummeted to about $250 per year, and median income is closer to $100 per year. The Central Bank releases little foreign exchange to commercial banks. Perhaps 1,000 factories have closed over the last two or three years, inflation is rampant, and armed robbery is at an all-time high. The siphoning off of oil revenues by a corrupt military has destroyed the economy, and Nigerians can only benefit by stopping the plunder.
* Fourth, an embargo will serve as a rebuke to Shell, Chevron, and other oil companies for the poor conduct of their oil politics in Nigeria. Shell's spoilage of the environment is at the root of the Ogoniland problem, and the multinational giant should long ago have spent tens of millions cleaning up its mess and rehabilitating local communities. Furthermore, Shell announced a week after the hangings that it was proceeding with its participation in a $3.5 billion liquefied natural gas project, oblivious to the fact that its timing serves to confirm Abacha in his savagery. Chevron similarly has proceeded lock step with Abacha into huge new investments. Oil companies are far behind the curve in understanding that human rights and environmental concerns must influence their investment and operating decisions.
* Fifth, Nelson Mandela is appealing directly to Britain and the US to apply oil sanctions against Nigeria. If the West ignores his call, Mandela's moral authority and political influence in Africa will be impaired. For the US, which unilaterally applied economic sanctions against South Africa to bring majority rule to that country, now to reject a plea by Mandela for similar action against Nigeria would be shortsighted.
Risks of the oil weapon
An oil embargo is not without risks. Abacha could threaten Americans and nationalize US interests. He could take out his wrath on others still imprisoned, such as Moshood Abiola, Olusegun Obasanjo, Musa Yar'Adua, and Beko Ransome-Kuti, or reach abroad to Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate, and Ken Wiwa, the Ogoni leader's son. And he could get around a US embargo and sell at least some of his production to European and Asian buyers through Marc Rich, the indicted American broker who operates for Nigeria out of Switzerland. But what Abacha cannot do is remain long in office. In this highly politicized nation of 250 ethnic groups, no single individual can hold the country ransom forever, particularly no one as despised and isolated as Abacha.
Seizing or freezing foreign bank accounts of Abacha and other members of his cabal has been suggested as an alternative to an embargo, but this would be ineffective. It is difficult to locate his assets; most are not in the US. He does not use his own accumulated wealth to dispense the corruption that sustains him in power, and any assets forfeited will only impel him to recover his losses more aggressively.
The question that has gone unanswered in Washington is, How important to US interests are the lives and liberties of 100 million Africans? Given a choice, Americans would bear pennies at the pump to support survival and democracy for a shattered people and peace and progress in the world's poorest region. What is less clear is the ability of the Clinton administration to act in accordance with America's values.
Embargoing Nigerian oil is the best hope for preserving the Nigerian state. Mandela knows better than anyone - US sanctions worked in South Africa and can work in Nigeria. A continent is waiting for a response.