W. Africans Fret Sanctions Will Stir Chaos in Nigeria

WHILE international pressure mounts for sanctions against Nigeria's military rulers, the neighbors of Africa's most populous country quietly hope the controversy will wither away.

In a continent marred by civil war and turmoil, many West Africans say the last thing they need is for Nigeria to collapse under threatened freezes on foreign investment, aid, and oil sales.

Western human rights lobbyists and South African President Nelson Mandela can safely call for sanctions because they are so far away, these West Africans say. But for those living in the shadow of a giant, the prospect of refugees and instability spilling over the borders of Nigeria, a country of 100 million people, is frightening.

''Look at the chaos [the civil war in] Liberia caused. It was small and had no international weight,'' says a Western diplomat based in Accra, the capital of Ghana. ''Unrest in Nigeria? It would be unfathomable. The region could not deal with an influx of Nigerians.''

The Organization of African Unity, the largest political grouping of African states, has condemned Nigeria's execution last month of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other dissidents. The Commonwealth group of former British colonies has suspended Nigeria from membership. On Monday, five of 12 heads of state of the Southern African Development Community decided in Pretoria, South Africa, to refer a decision on tough sanctions to a Commonwealth committee.

But a summit of Francophone countries held earlier this month in Benin, which borders Nigeria, was reluctant to censure Nigerian ruler Gen. Sani Abacha too harshly. Those at the summit most opposed to taking a tougher stance were all countries located close to Nigeria.

The African Development Bank also is beginning to worry about the implications of sanctions on Nigeria, which bankers say owes the bank up to $1 billion. ''There could potentially be a problem with their loan repayments. That would be a cause of concern here,'' says Daniel Duesterberg, a member of the American team at the bank.

In theory, nearby Ghana, like Nigeria an English-speaking country, would stand to gain if foreign investors pulled out of Nigeria. But diplomats note that Ghana's population, and thus its potential market, is small - 15 million people. Businesses probably would withdraw from the region altogether rather than relocate to Accra.

Ghana's government, headed by President Jerry Rawlings, has been notably reluctant to join in the harsh censures of Nigeria, preferring quiet diplomacy instead. A close aide to President Rawlings, Tsatsu Tsikata, says it is important to keep channels of communication with Nigeria open so as not to isolate the country's military rulers further.

Mr. Tsikata, who heads the National Ghana Petroleum Corporation, which cooperates with its Nigerian counterpart, is among the most vocal opponents of sanctions.

''Ghana's relations with Nigeria can be valuable in gaining the confidence of Nigeria so that it doesn't feel so isolated. A lot of effort should be put into finding constructive solutions,'' he told the Monitor.

In Liberia and Sierra Leone, beset by civil wars, Nigeria has sought to boost its international prestige by posting troops to maintain what little peace there is.

In Sierra Leone - singled out by the Commonwealth last month as another notorious abuser of human rights - Nigeria is seen as its savior.

Even opponents of Sierra Leone's military regime don't want to see Nigeria brought down while 2,000 of its well-disciplined troops maintain the only defenses against Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone. Without Nigeria's help, the rebels could take airports and block highways, they say.

''We have mixed feelings,'' says Frank Karefa-Smart, a leading diamond exporter and a member of Sierra Leone's opposition National United Peoples' Party. ''The Nigerians are helping us with the war.''

In the Ivory Coast, concern is growing about the implications of a wave of Nigerian refugees. About 400,000 Liberians have fled across the border to the Ivory Coast fleeing their civil war. That process has been fairly smooth because the refugees are largely from the same ethnic group as the Ivorians in the area. This wouldn't be the case with refugees from Nigeria.

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