Nigeria is too diverse and great a country for Gen. Sani Abacha, who seized power in November, to rule as his personal fiefdom. He pretends to have started up a constitutional process to replace the elected national legislature, state governments and local assemblies he dismantled. Actually, he is fighting the tides. Now he is taking on the oil industry work force, the source of Nigeria's wealth.
It was quixotic of businessman Moshood K. O. Abiola to claim to be president of Africa's most populous country, last month, on the first anniversary of the election he won. The former strongman, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, had suspended that vote, set up a puppet regime, then stepped down after protest by his countrymen. General Abacha is less daunted by protest. He had Mr. Abiola arrested and, now, charged with treason.
Nigeria used to assume it led black Africa. It has the most people, some 90 million at last count, but the regime really does not want to know for fear of upsetting the tribal balance. It has more education and entrepreneurial talent than its neighbors. It has taken a responsible lead in trying to bring peace and order to nearby Liberia. But Nigeria is moving backward on democracy and human rights when other countries are moving forward.
Nelson Mandela of South Africa speaks for fewer people but more national wealth, a stronger economy and greater legitimacy than General Abacha. The people of little Malawi held an election and made opposition leader Bakili Muluzi their president, retiring the ancient president-for-life, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who accepted defeat.
Nigeria can go only downhill under General Abacha. Crime is discouraging foreign investment. The way to avoid anarchy and dissolution such as besets Zaire is to adhere to the popular will. The two principal oil workers unions vowed yesterday to continue strikes to end military rule. General Abacha arrested the leader of one of them and sent soldiers in to perform oil industry jobs. But these protests will grow.
The more the general quells dissent, the more dissent there is. He is a strong man whose chief power is to make things worse. He belongs in oblivion with his former leader, General Babangida. The institutions of legitimacy that General Abacha suspended are the ones that can rescue Nigeria.