Nigeria's Dictator, His Ally, And Their Access to US

An individual widely regarded in Nigeria as the principal traveling salesman for dictator Gen. Sani Abacha contributed $460,000 to a group designated by a Democratic National Committee (DNC) fund-raiser and subsequently gained access to the White House. The presence of General Abacha's ally among top officials of the United States government merits immediate investigation.

After Abacha sanctioned the hanging of nine political opponents in 1995, he faced severely strained relations with the US. Failure to curb heroin trafficking added to the strain.

Enter Gilbert Chagouri. Of Lebanese descent, he runs an empire built on his relationship with Nigeria's corrupt dictator. His activities include domination of Nigeria's crude oil exports; construction, including much of Abuja, the new federal capital; real estate; dredging; wheat purchases and flour milling; and now, with the debilitation of Nigeria's refineries, imports of gasoline and diesel.

Abacha has been his patron for years, and since coming to power in 1993, he and Chagouri reputedly have generated billions of dollars for themselves in profits and hidden commissions.

As reported in The Washington Post Nov. 22, the chronology of events that led to Chagouri's White House visit is as follows:

* In September 1995, three top US African affairs officials held secret meetings with Nigerian officials in Geneva, with Chagouri joining the gathering for drinks.

* In August 1996, congressman (now US ambassador) Bill Richardson met with Abacha in Abuja and later repaired to Chagouri's home for further discussions over pizza.

* In the late summer or early fall of 1996, Chagouri was solicited by a DNC fund-raiser, and he promptly made three contributions totaling $460,000 to a Miami-based voter-registration group to which DNC solicitors had also steered other foreign money.

* In December 1996, Chagouri attended a White House dinner for major DNC contributors, even though technically his donation was nonpartisan "soft" money.

* In July 1997, Chagouri met with James Steinberg, President Clinton's deputy national security adviser, and Susan Rice, since confirmed as assistant secretary of state for Africa, to discuss US-Nigeria relations.

Mr. Steinberg was quoted in the Post article as saying "this was an ideal way to get a clear message" to Abacha about US concerns on democracy and human rights. That's unlikely.

Chagouri's motivation is to keep Abacha in power. Their partnership has made them both extremely rich. Not that this buys Chagouri peace of mind. He has a residence in Nigeria, but these days he only flies into Abuja in his Gulf Stream jet, calls at Abacha's stronghold, Aso Rock, and departs quickly after completing his business dealings.

Abacha's motivation is likewise to stay in power. He is building an expansive cult of personality, which serves to fool only himself and his henchmen. Last month he saw to it that the Army would declare it would have no objection if he ran for president in the planned October 1998 election. Every other presidential candidate who has raised his head has been detained or brow-beaten into moving aside. With the ballot only 10 months away, there are no candidates, and Abacha obviously intends to emerge as the "consensus" flag-bearer for his five sanctioned political parties.

In a public address in October, Abacha said little about returning Nigeria to civilian rule. In November, on the fourth anniversary of his takeover, he implied he might release a few of the thousands of political prisoners in his jails but again said little about any return to democracy. He is destroying domestic dissent and manipulating international opinion to accommodate the impending announcement of his own electoral ambitions.

Abacha is widely and credibly believed in the US and Nigeria to have spent tens of millions of dollars on his US "public relations" campaign. He has split the African-American community, to the point that the Clinton administration has no inclination to take up a harder line toward his rogue regime. At least that's the analysis that previously served to explain US dithering before the Chagouri activity came to light.

When Chagouri donates $460,000, it is tantamount to a donation from Abacha. When Chagouri meets with US officials in the White House, it raises suspicion that Abacha is improperly seeking to influence US policy. James Steinberg's notion that a "clear message" would get back to Abacha is naive. The message that got back is, first, that Chagouri money was accepted, and, second, official access resulted.

Nigeria's democratic activists at home and in exile know the close relation of Abacha and Chagouri. They and American Africanists are asking how this happened, what the US will do about it, and whether US policy will toughen in the future. An investigation of this donation and millions of dollars in other donations spread in Washington and around the country from the Abacha regime is long overdue.

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

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