Get Tough With Nigeria

NIGERIA'S military rulers need to get the message: Their stranglehold on the politics and the economy of Africa's most populous, and potentially one of its richest, nations won't be tolerated.

The Clinton administration recognizes this. That's why it has proposed toughened sanctions against the government of Gen. Sani Abacha. Unfortunately, the move may prove more symbolic than practical.

At the least, however, the threat of no new foreign investment and frozen foreign bank accounts registers Washington's continued disgust for a regime that last November hanged a number of dissidents - most prominently writer and Ogoni tribe activist Ken Saro-Wiwa - after a staged military trial.

The sanctions put forward by Washington have been coolly received abroad. European nations are not much interested in having their roles as financial centers curtailed by account-freezing mandates. Both European and American businesspeople with interests in Nigeria vigorously oppose the plan.

The central character just offstage in this drama is oil. Nigeria produces a significant share of the world's highly prized low-sulphur petroleum. Oil giants such as Shell and Mobil are deeply involved in extracting oil and natural gas from the Niger delta. New and possibly highly productive fields are being probed.

General Abacha and his cohorts line their pockets with oil money; little if any reaches average Nigerians, who are currently lined up at service stations enduring a severe gasoline shortage. If the goal is to get Abacha's attention, the obvious sanctions target is oil exports. But, for now, it's more likely that wars will be fought to preserve access to that resource than sanctions imposed to cut it off - no matter what the human rights stakes.

The Clinton sanctions sidestep oil. So, even if they can muster international backing, it's doubtful they'd ruffle the generals in Nigeria.

It has to be hoped that the sanctions already in place - including the denial of visas and a cut-off of arms sales - together with the threat of new sanctions, will push the military more rapidly toward its promised transition to democracy. But the exclusion of many antiregime candidates from the current local-council elections dulls such hopes.

The US and other concerned countries should keep the pressure on Nigeria's corrupt leaders - making it clear that if intransigence continues, the oil option could still be used.

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