South Africa Takes a Step Back From Putting Nigeria in the Hot Seat

A cool pragmatism prevails over early tough criticism by Mandela

FAR from Nelson Mandela's trailblazing call last year for sanctions against Nigeria, South Africa has been trying to pull the teeth from a resolution at the United Nations that slams the West African country's human rights record.

The Foreign Ministry acknowledges it is negotiating to have the resolution toned down before it is presented this week at the UN Human Rights Commission's annual session in Geneva, but argues it is the best strategy to get consensus among Africa, Asian, and Latin American countries - and increases the chances of it being adopted.

"We have taken the view that we should make a contribution to a position where African countries can for the first time get consensus [on Nigeria,]" says Jackie Selebi, South Africa's ambassador to the UN in Geneva.

This softer approach is a far cry from President Mandela's outspoken but somewhat lonely crusade last November for sanctions against oil-rich Nigeria. Mandela first made the call when Nigeria's military government hanged author Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow minority-rights activists.

Mandela's human rights stance was lauded by many in the West, though not heeded - least by the United States, which imports about half of Nigeria's oil. But African countries made it clear they were not amused by what they saw as Mandela's disregard for African "brotherhood." South Africa's position in Geneva appears to be a confirmation that it has heeded the African concern.

Return to a 'soft' approach

The Foreign Ministry's change of heart has angered human rights groups in South Africa, most of all the South Africa-Nigeria Democracy Support Group, which was formed last year with significant support from Mandela's ruling African National Congress. "We are disappointed with the [return] to the 'softly-softly' approach of before Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed. We would have liked something more vociferous," says Siad Raks Seakhoa, chairman of the group.

The vote on the resolution, planned for tomorrow, coincides with a visit by Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo to London for a meeting of the Commonwealth "committee of eight." The committee was established by the group last November to investigate human rights abuses in Nigeria and two other African countries.

Nigeria's membership in the Commonwealth was suspended after the November 1995 hangings. Part of the committee's mandate was to visit Nigeria on a fact-finding mission, but Nigerian military ruler Sani Abacha, who took power in 1993 after elections were annulled, has refused it entry saying it interferes with Nigeria's sovereignty. The London meeting is likely to formulate its response to that rebuff.

Ironically, the part of the resolution which South Africa wants removed has the same theme: another world probe into Nigeria's human rights situation.

A draft version of the UN resolution in Geneva says it is "deeply concerned" about the abuse of human rights in Nigeria and over its plans to try another 19 minority activists "by the same flawed judicial process which led to the arbitrary execution of Ken Saro Wiwa." It calls for rights guarantees and "immediate ... steps to restore democratic government." Finally, the draft calls for the appointment of a UN special rapporteur to "examine the human rights situation in Nigeria" and to report to the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Commission.

Ambassador Selebi explains that African countries feel sending a special rapporteur - whose position is seen as having very wide powers - to Nigeria will be an "overdose." He points out that the Commonwealth mission is still pending, that UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali had his own "goodwill mission" to the country this month, and that Nigeria itself has signaled it may be willing to accept UN "thematic rapporteurs," who will report on specific issues such as torture or the independence of the judiciary.

"We looked at [the draft] and consulted our colleagues from Africa. It was very clear there would be no support unless at least a number of African governments could identify with it. If that happened, some Asian and Latin American countries would support it, which will increase its chances of succeeding.... As it is, [the resolution] won't succeed with the special rapporteur," Selebi says.

Regional rebuke

A Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says South Africa's neighbor states in the Southern African Development Community "made [us] understand clearly" at a meeting last December that "we had to do things on a regional basis." Several of the states in the regional body have strong trade relations with Nigeria and were against sanctions, she said.

Mandela's relative silence on Nigeria since then is an indication that the regional criticism was taken to heart, and that a policy that is practical more than moral was subsequently opted for.

Earlier this month there were claims that the Foreign Ministry tried to discourage a meeting of Nigerian democracy groups by not issuing visas in time to participants.

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