The Clinton administration has rushed to embrace Nigeria's new military general Abdulsalam Abubakar following his pledge to return the country to democratic rule next year. Lost in Washington's overtures to the new military strongman, however, has been support for the environmental activists whose persecution helped to galvanize world opinion against the regime - the Ogoni supporters of writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa whom the military hanged in 1995.
The real litmus test for Nigeria's rulers should not only be its allusions to yet another promised democratic transition, but rather how the interim government responds to Nigeria's minorities - particularly those communities in the Niger Delta hard hit by pollution from the oil industry. Any transition program that ostracizes those citizens most affected by and most excluded from the country's oil wealth will only succeed in fomenting future turmoil in this important country.
The Nigerian military finally saw fit Sept. 7 to release 20 Ogoni activists who had been held without trial for more than four years. Unfortunately, the Ogoni have been released from one prison only to enter another. Nigeria's Ogoni land remains heavily militarized following an attempt by the junta to quash local opposition to oil development.
The Ogoni 20 were imprisoned for supporting Saro-Wiwa's campaign for a clean environment - a campaign which targeted the biggest polluter, Royal/Dutch Shell, the company that is also Nigeria's largest oil producer.
Shell has so far refused to clean up an environmental mess which has destroyed Ogoni farmlands, fisheries, and livelihoods, and it has refused to accept a UN High Commissioner's report calling for an independent environmental survey of the area. The last time Shell's ethical record came under this level of scrutiny at a UN human rights commission was in relation to its involvement in apartheid South Africa.
Since the untimely death of jailed opposition leader Moshood Abiola, former US Ambassador to Nigeria Walter Carrington has lamented that his calls for the Clinton administration to toughen economic sanctions against the regime were rebuffed. Undoubtedly the administration's opposition to sanctions was bolstered by record lobbying from the oil industry which increased their investments in Nigeria to about $7 billion during the Abacha years. Former Shell Nigeria General Manager Nnameka Achebe told Harper's magazine in 1996 that "for a commercial company trying to make investments, you need a stable environment. Dictatorships can give you that."
American foreign policy should reflect the values of American citizens, not just the values of multinational corporations. The change in leadership in Nigeria provides new opportunities for leaders in Nigeria and the US to construct policy that will include those individuals necessary to make a democracy function - human rights and environmental advocates who are often standard bearers of pro-democracy efforts. The change in leadership also provides opportunities for companies like Shell to start to win public trust by allowing a truly independent analysis of their operations.
If General Abubakar is serious about returning Nigeria to the people, he should begin by releasing all remaining political prisoners, withdrawing the military from Ogoni land and supporting an independent environmental assessment of the area. He should immediately release the bodies of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight other environmental activists hanged by the military. He should allow the Wiwa family to return home to bury Ken.
Granted, these would be bold moves from the man who as a member of the Abacha regime voted to ratify the military tribunal judgment that led to Saro-Wiwa's execution. But bold moves are needed. Only then will perceptions of Nigeria begin to change.
* Stephen Mills is the Sierra Club's Human Rights and the Environment Campaign director in Washington, D.C.