Nigeria descends deep into disrepute Rule by 'medieval warlords' is holding back largest nation on the African continent


Earlier this month, three official delegations set off to sub-Saharan Africa from Washington to display the higher priority that the Clinton administration is placing on the development of political democracy and economic growth in the region.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson urged the leaders of Kenya and Zambia to continue their hesitant progress toward building democratic political systems.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the senior black member of Congress, heads a commission examining trade and development opportunities in Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Uganda and Mauritius.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright toured Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Congo, Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa, meeting a new generation of political leaders and advancing "the rule of law, stability and economic opportunity."

In all this to-ing and fro-ing across Africa, Nigeria is the conspicuous missing link. The largest country on the continent with some 110 million inhabitants and substantial natural and human resources, Nigeria ranks in international esteem a notch above outlaw nations such as Libya and Iraq.

The U.S. enforces sanctions against Nigeria that bar direct air connections between the two countries. The White House declared Lagos to be a center for international drug trafficking and money laundering, and an unsafe place to visit.

However, this policy has done little to change the behavior of the military officers who have long controlled Nigeria to the profit of themselves and a small clique of civilian sycophants. Searching for stronger tools, American officials have been frustrated by the general lack of interest in Africa and the ambivalent feelings black Americans have toward autocratic African governments. No strong U.S. constituency is pushing for change in Nigeria, as there was to overturn the Communist regimes of East Europe.

The most recent Nigerian outrage occurred in September when armed police and soldiers of the government of Gen. Sani Abacha broke up a farewell party given by political dissidents for Walter Carrington, a black businessman who served for four years as U.S. ambassador and was a persistent advocate of democracy.

In November, the British Commonwealth extended the suspension of Nigeria's membership, which was provoked by the 1995 execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer and

environmentalist who campaigned against the despoliation of his home region by the international oil companies that dominate the economy. Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, cannot return to his homeland because he is charged with treason for his outspoken opposition to the Abacha government.

An international business group, Transparency International, lists Nigeria as the "most corrupt" country for its business practices. The Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, has long called Abacha one of the world's greatest enemies of journalists.

The country's reputation is such that it receives little private foreign investment despite the potential of its immense internal market and strategic location on Africa's west coast. Given a false appearance of wealth by revenues from oil and gas production, Nigeria is ineligible for most foreign economic assistance. International oil companies, especially Shell and Mobil, produce 90 percent of Nigeria's hard currency earnings and 80 percent of its official revenue.

Criticisms of the military also touch on the economic recession that has caused national income to fall from $1,000 per person in 1980 to $260 in 1996. A third of the population lives on less than $1 a day. Although the country can grow an ample supply of food, malnutrition stunts the growth of 52 percent of the children under 5. Some 300,000 children die each year from diarrhea; one-fourth of all the sexually transmitted diseases recorded in black Africa occur in Nigeria.

Overhanging this panoply of shame and scandal is the case of Moshood K. Abiola, a rich businessman from Lagos who by general agreement won the 1994 election held to transfer power from the military to a civilian government. But Abacha seized control and locked up Abiola. His only known visitor has been his physician, who could not bring instruments or medicines. Abiola's lawyers have been denied access to their client. The government says he fired them.

An American diplomat told me in Lagos, "There is a desperate search for political legitimacy."

"We do not have a government," a Nigerian editor added. "The generals have the mind-set of medieval warlords."

Among other prisoners, including political leaders, journalists and union officers, Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, a former general accused of plotting a coup in 1995, died in prison this month. With a paranoid fear of coups, Abacha last month fired his entire cabinet.

The general then suggested he might free some of his prisoners, but no such announcements have been made. An effort at mediation by South African President Nelson Mandela failed.

Freed from diplomatic restraints, Carrington told the New York City Council in October that he was "convinced" that the military in 1996 assassinated Kudirat Abiola, the "principal wife" of Moshood Abiola. A Muslim, Abiola has many wives, but Kudirat "was the opposition leader that the Abacha regime most feared," Carrington said. "She was indefatigable in her efforts to unite all those who fought for a return to democracy in Africa's largest and potentially richest country."

On another occasion, Carrington said: "This is a place that should be one of the leading countries in the world. But, until they are able to resolve the problem of allowing the people to choose their leaders democratically, I am afraid they are not going to realize their potential."

The U.S. and other western countries have provided prestige to Nigerians by financing their role as leaders of the mixed-African force that ended civil war and supervised the recent election in Liberia. Head of the west African economic group, Nigeria also maintains troops in Sierra Leone, where they failed last summer to reverse a military overthrow of an elected government.

Abacha has promised to permit a transition to civilian rule next October, but most experts believe he will make a pseudo-transfer of power by merely exchanging his uniform for a civilian suit.

The government has approved five parties to take part in coming elections, but as one journalist said, "They are like the fingers of a hand - a leper's hand." There is also ferment among the generals and colonels who run the states and many ministries and who are not eager to give up their lucrative jobs.

Still, political tension in Nigeria is driven more by regional and ethnic differences than political differences. The ruling cadre consists mostly of northerners who are Muslim, as is about 50 percent of the population. Abacha, who usually communicates to the country by decree and state television, is never interviewed by local journalists and stays close to his compound in Abuja, the sterile capital that the military has been building for many years in the highlands north of Lagos.

Western journalists have difficulty getting visas to visit Nigeria, and only a few - no Americans - reside in Lagos, the immense, fetid coastal metropolis that is the commercial and diplomatic capital and center of political opposition. Like the businessmen and diplomats working in Lagos, journalists rarely go to Abuja.

The city, except for two fancy hotels, is a ghost town. Workers are not allowed to live there and are hauled to and from their jobs each day in large open trucks or jammed buses from villages an hour or more away.

Among the most vocal opponents of the military are leaders of the Yoruba tribe, the largest single ethnic group and inheritors of one of the oldest African cultures. Abiola is the rare Nigerian, a Yoruba Muslim who found popularity throughout the country.

Among the 40 percent of the population who are Christians living in the south, the Roman Catholic bishops are the most outspoken opponents of Abacha. In September, they urged the government "to demonstrate its determination to introduce genuine democratic rule" and "create a more conducive environment by greater respect for fundamental rights." They called on the government to release all political prisoners and allow them to participate fully in the transition process.

The military government strives to undercut the effectiveness of Washington policy by appealing for support to the African American community and some white conservatives. Every year, delegations of influential black Americans are given sanitized tours and royal treatment in Abuja.

Defending the November trip that he and other black politicians took, Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. said, "I have been around a long time. I have fought the good fight for democracy, and no government can dupe me."

Few of the visiting delegations go to the U.S. Embassy, where they would be given briefings critical of the Abacha regime. While former Ambassador Carrington said that "as a black American" he was embarrassed by the conduct of the Nigerian government, the Trans-Africa Foundation, which led a long, popular campaign against the former white government of South Africa, has not been able to generate similar results in Nigeria.

Wole Soyinka, who is a Yorubu, earlier this year warned American blacks against "fictioning" the pre-colonial history of Africa, especially the region of Benin that is split between Nigeria and neighboring Benin. That land, Soyinka told a Wellesley, Mass., audience, is today "appropriated by men of khaki and camouflage, guns and brass buckles."

The generals, he said, have made a nation where "millions are on the edge of starvation, where medical delivery no longer exists, where the educational system has collapsed and university students have become virtually illiterate."

Murray Seeger is an adjunct professor of journalism at George Washington University who spent four weeks in Nigeria as a visiting scholar for the United States Information Agency.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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