Now That One African Dictatorship Has Booted Another, Many Ask Why?

Military-led Nigeria leads rescue of Sierra Leone from a junta

When forces acting in the name of democracy overthrow dictatorships, the international community normally applauds. But last week, when a Nigerian-led African peacekeeping force chased Major Johnny Paul Koroma's military junta from Sierra Leone's capital, the world responded with little more than a polite murmur.

True, Major Koroma's eight-month-old regime came to power in a military coup, was composed mainly of Army officers, and had acquired a reputation for brutality, blackmail, daylight looting, and bare-faced greed. The trouble is, nearly the same things are said of Nigeria's rulers by its critics.

Gen. Sani Abacha, Nigeria's head of state, himself came to power after his army annulled elections widely regarded as free and fair in 1993. Under his leadership, Nigeria has executed or imprisoned hundreds of civilian and military dissidents. The execution of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow activists for alleged murder in 1995 was widely condemned abroad and led the United Nations, United States, and most Western countries to impose limited sanctions.

But thanks to Nigeria's massive oil reserves, the ruling elite has been able to tough it out. So while nobody mourns the passing of Koroma from power, foreign observers in the region say that their governments feel unable or unwilling to congratulate Nigeria too loudly.

Restoring a democratically elected government may be an effort to warm up to the West. But foreign observers are concerned that Nigeria's rulers may well be after more than Brownie points in Sierra Leone.

With more than 100 million citizens, Nigeria is by far the most populous country in Africa and, despite years of escalating corruption and economic mismanagement, it remains the dominant political and military power.

According to one source in neighboring Liberia, many diplomats now believe that the Sierra Leone operation could be part of a bid to strengthen Nigeria's strategic position.

Many also believe that Nigeria's military elite may have planned the operation with at least one eye to Sierra Leone's considerable mineral wealth: Apart from substantial deposits of bauxite and titanium dioxide, the diamond fields around Kono and Bo are estimated to yield more than $200 million a year.

KOROMA'S obscure coup has been described as one of the most cynical power grabs in modern history. Sierra Leone's internationally respected ambassador to the UN, James Jonah, tried to negotiate with the junta shortly after the coup and emerged, dismayed, to tell journalists that the soldiers' main demand seemed to be lots of money - later reported to be around $45 million.

"And," he added, "they want 18 months in office to loot further. That is all they want to do. It is just shameful."

The Nigerian-led West African Peacekeeping Forces' early attempts to reverse the coup were ham-fisted. By bombarding Freetown from the air and sea, they merely succeeded in bringing a barrage of international criticism down on their own heads.

The standoff came to an abrupt end Feb. 5, when - according the peacekeeping chief of staff Gen. Abdu One Mohammed - a minor clash at the Nigerian enclave at Hastings airstrip, south of Freetown, escalated into full-scale fighting.

The Nigerians deny that the operation was a planned offensive: Troops merely followed retreating rebels until they arrived at the capital. The city itself was declared clear last weekend, after three days of fighting. At least 118 people were reported killed and 800 more wounded.

Diplomats say that, having taken Freetown and promised to restore elected President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah to power, Nigeria will make its intentions clear by its actions in the weeks ahead.

The real question is how dependent Mr. Kabbah will be on Nigerian soldiers to uphold his rule.

Members of the junta have already taken to the bush and signaled their future plans by mounting raids on the interior cities of Bo and Kenema.

According to General Mohammed, the peacekeepers, who reached Bo yesterday, now plan to pursue them into the bush and wipe them out.

"If you have a snake and you hit just the tail, you are wasting your time," he says. "You have to hit the head as well. We have to make sure that the source of the crisis is actually stopped."

But if the Nigerians fail to crush the junta completely, Kabbah is going to need their protection from the implacable fighters in the bush. That might suit some people in the Nigerian regime, remarked one diplomat in Liberia.

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