US Policy Toward Nigeria Is Grossly Inadequate

Western countries underestimate the possibility of total state collapse and how effective oil sanctions could be

The late-June summit meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized countries plus Russia in Lyon, France, presents the best opportunity for the United States to press a case for economic and political sanctions against Nigeria, or to announce it is prepared to pursue sanctions alone. US analysis of and policy toward Nigeria, however, needs prompt review. The June 4 assassination of the wife of Moshood Abiola, winner of the annulled 1993 presidential election, should hasten this effort.

Testifying May 15 before the Africa subcommittee of the US Senate Foreign Relations committee, Peter Tarnoff, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said that the US and other Western countries "will not permit the government of Nigeria to impede democratic progress and disregard human rights with impunity." This statement is both flawed and instructive.

Gen. Sani Abacha, Nigeria's military ruler, has drawn the opposite conclusion - that he can get away with human rights abuses and a delayed political-transition program virtually as long as he wants. His assessment is based on two observations: (1) the world needs his 2 million barrels a day of high quality oil, and (2) Western governments have reacted with extraordinary timidity to his brutalities, criminalities, and snubbings to date - the hangings of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others last November; lengthy prison sentences imposed on former head of state Olusegun Obasanjo, his deputy Musa Yar'Adua, and some 40 others; detention without trial of Moshood Abiola; ongoing detention of thousands more political activists and opponents without trial; seizure of journalists and closure and burning of publishing houses; forced control over oil-sector trade unions; continued theft of oil revenues by the billions; relegations of the judicial system to impotence in the face of his decrees; arrogation to himself of the power to remove even minor elected officials at will; and open defiance of the Commonwealth nations.

The statement that General Abacha cannot act with "impunity" has no credibility.

Moreover, Mr. Tarnoff's limitation of his concerns to political transition and human rights points up the central error in US analysis of the Nigerian situation - an inadequate assessment of the risk of total state collapse, with attendant tragedies for Nigeria's 100 million people and much of sub-Saharan Africa. While accurately cataloguing Abacha's assault on human rights and correctly criticizing his lengthy and dubious process for return to civilian rule, US policymakers have gone on to express the view that there is little near-term threat to Nigeria's corporate existence. This is fundamentally incorrect.

There are at least three aspects of the Nigerian situation that apparently have not been adequately factored into US analyses:

First is the loss of the Nigerian people's commitment to maintenance of the state. The mission of Donald McHenry, a special envoy to Nigeria, recommended in these columns some months ago, has been particularly disappointing. Mr. McHenry and numerous other government and congressional officials who have journeyed to Lagos and Abuja to talk with the elite have come away with the impression that all want Nigeria to survive and are willing to endure difficulties to achieve this end.

These visitors have not gone into the back streets and villages to inquire where a unified Nigeria fits on the scale of priorities of its common people. To do so would produce a different outlook. Given a choice between (1) unity under Abacha's promises and (2) breakup with a reasonable chance for restoration of democratic participation and economic opportunity, there is no question what the people would choose: dismember the nation now rather than tolerate prolonged military rule. In the widespread loss of commitment to unity lies the greater threat to Nigeria.

Second, the economy has plummeted far lower than is commonly perceived abroad, to the lowest level since independence, much worse than during the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s. Inflation is rampant, infrastructure is deteriorated, industries are shut, education and health services are at their nadir, and malnutrition is growing. All this at a time when oil revenues are at their highest since the Persian Gulf crisis.

Gross national product estimates suggest per capita incomes of roughly $300 annually, a commonly quoted figure. The average Nigerian is subsisting on an income perhaps one-fifth of this, attesting to the enormous gap between rich and poor and to the demise of the middle class.

Some Western diplomats look at Zaire as an example of what could happen to Nigeria - a steady but essentially peaceful winding down of economic and political affairs until the nation lies moribund but remains one. Not a chance. The people of Nigeria are among the most energetic and politicized in the world. They know that either the government or the structure of the nation has to change.

Third, among threats to Nigeria's unity is the state of the military. The performance of Nigerian peacekeepers in the ECOMOG force in Liberia has in recent months been abysmal, characterized by shunning of military duties and participation in looting. Furthermore, Abacha, a northerner, has been retiring thousands of officers he deems to be less than trustworthy, mostly southerners.

Perhaps of greater significance is an apparent disaffection of junior officers, many of whom seem deeply concerned that training opportunities in the US and Britain have been canceled, while Nigeria turns to China and Iran. In particular, Air Force and Navy officers see little future in services with inadequate equipment, while the Army remains a corrupted institution lacking in professionalism. Abacha argues that the military must preserve the integrity of the nation, but there is strong reason to doubt that these officers can contribute to the security of the state.

In the face of Abacha's growing savagery, US policy has remained stagnant - essentially visa and travel restrictions on government officials, a ban on military sales, and impediments to foreign financial credits. Nigerians, both internal and exiled, are now calling for oil sanctions against their country, assuring Western governments that even a total embargo on purchases cannot hurt ordinary citizens who see no benefit from oil revenues anyway. This call should not be ignored.

* Paul Beran is the pseudonym for an investor with years of experience in Nigeria.

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