THE United States is under growing international pressure to impose comprehensive sanctions against the military dictatorship of Nigeria following the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others last November. Sanctions may be justified morally, but will they work politically? What kind of sanctions would be most effective against Gen. Sani Abacha's regime, and what lessons can be learned from recent cases of sanctions imposed on Iraq, Haiti, and other countries?
Sanctions rarely succeed in overthrowing dictators. Uneven and ineffective sanctions against Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras in Haiti and Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega in Panama gave way to military force. Saddam Hussein remains in charge in Baghdad, despite crippling economic and social devastation in Iraq. Sanctions alone should not be expected to force a change of government in Nigeria, but rather should be tailored to encourage democratic reform and empower internal reform groups.
The lessons of South Africa are instructive. When major governments imposed sanctions, and churches, universities, trade unions, and foundations withdrew billions of investment dollars from corporations operating in South Africa, South African leaders were persuaded to begin negotiations with African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela.
The sanctions also sent a powerful message of solidarity and encouragement to the ANC and other liberation forces. By working hand-in-hand with these internal movements, sanctions sparked a process of dialogue that ended the apartheid system.
Whenever sanctions are considered, the economic and humanitarian consequences must be weighed carefully. In the United States, the disruptive effects of a Nigerian oil embargo could be considerable. One US official has estimated a 10-cents-per-gallon price shock. Such an impact, without effective compensatory measures, could be politically unacceptable and might weaken US resolve to act on behalf of Nigerian democracy.
The humanitarian consequences within Nigeria also need to be addressed. In a country already suffering from severe poverty, malnutrition, and disease, the further impact of an oil embargo and trade sanctions could be devastating. Provisions of food, medicine, and other basic necessities must be guaranteed for vulnerable populations.
By targeting economic pressures against the military leaders responsible for wrongdoing, Washington and its allies can minimize humanitarian suffering and sharpen the bite of sanctions. The preferred option is to impose strict financial sanctions. The overseas accounts of Abacha and his colleagues should be frozen, visas for military and government officials canceled, and travel opportunities for elites severely restricted. International communications, including the wire transfers needed to allocate overseas funds, should be blocked. Financing for long-term development projects should be suspended.
One unique feature of the Nigerian case is the need to gain the cooperation of Shell, Chevron, and other major oil companies operating in the country. Without their support, state-sponsored sanctions would have only limited impact. These companies should be encouraged to support international democratization efforts in Nigeria. If they refuse to participate, they should be pressured through consumer and shareholder action.
Smart sanctions such as these, rather than a quick resort to trade sanctions, could do much to restore democracy to Nigeria.