Activists object to Jackson at U.S.-Nigeria talks


LAGOS, Nigeria -- A diplomatic initiative by President Clinton to help resolve Nigeria's political paralysis has generated protests here by human rights campaigners who say that the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Mr. Clinton's special envoy, may have aligned himself too closely with this country's military government to be a neutral mediator.

The U.S. Embassy in Lagos announced Thursday that Mr. Jackson and a delegation of State Department and national security officials were expected to travel to Nigeria in the next few days. Embassy officials say that Mr. Jackson is acting at President Clinton's request and hopes to deliver a letter from the president to Gen. Sani Abacha, Nigeria's military strongman.

Details of the letter were not disclosed, but an official at the U.S. Embassy said that it would call on Nigeria's military authorities to release Moshood Abiola, the wealthy industrialist and publisher who is widely believed to have won last year's presidential election. Mr. Abiola has been charged with treason and is expected to stand trial Thursday.

In his letter to General Abacha, Mr. Clinton is also said to have urged him to honor his pledge of handing power back to an elected civilian government as soon as possible in Africa's most populous nation and largest oil producer.

Earlier last week, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution calling upon the Abacha government to release Mr. Abiola and restore democracy in Nigeria. Two key supporters of the resolution -- Reps. Donald M. Payne, D-N.J., and William J. Jefferson, D-La. -- are expected to accompany Mr. Jackson on his Nigerian mission.

But Nigerian human rights campaigners have vigorously criticized Mr. Jackson's mission. They say he has long been a supporter of the former military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida and has been an unsteady and unreliable advocate for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa.

"General Abacha will manipulate a visit by Reverend Jackson toward his strategy to cling to power," Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian writer, said in a letter to Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Mr. Soyinka, writing on behalf of the African Democratic League, a Nigerian human rights group, said that Mr. Jackson's relationships with several autocratic African governments would probably compromise efforts to resolve Nigeria's volatile political situation.

Beko Ransome-Kuti, president of the Campaign for Democracy, Nigeria's main opposition group, said that Mr. Jackson was a "friend and collaborator of the military oligarchy in Nigeria" and of Mr. Abacha in particular.

Olisa Agbakoba, president of the Civil Liberties Organization, said that Mr. Jackson "has not come out unequivocally on the issue of democracy in Nigeria."

In the presidential election in Nigeria on June 12, 1993, the Babangida government repeatedly cited Mr. Jackson's support of its plan for a highly regimented transition to democracy.

While Mr. Jackson never explicitly endorsed any candidate in the election, he was widely perceived here as a supporter of the Babangida government, which established two parties, controlled their platforms and managed their campaigns.

When the more leftist party headed by Mr. Abiola appeared to be winning, the government disallowed the elections, leading to widespread protests that were silenced when General Abacha seized power in a bloodless coup in November.

He promptly began dismantling the democratic institutions that had been constructed, abolishing national and state assemblies, dissolving the two legal political parties, removing elected state governors and proscribing all political meetings and associations.

General Abacha has kept a low profile as his government grapples with a 4-week-old protest strike by workers in the oil industry, which generates $10 billion a year in income.

The two largest cities, Lagos and Ibadan, have been paralyzed by demonstrations against the government this week, and according to various reports, the number of protesters killed last Monday in clashes with police was between 10 and 20.

The aim of the actions, 13 long months after the democratic elections, is to force General Abacha to hand over power to Mr. Abiola.

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