Nigeria's Strongman

November 26, 1993

The puppeteer pulling the strings of Nigeria's rulers for the past decade has stepped in front of the curtain. Gen. Sani Abacha, shortly after turning 50, shortly after retiring generals who had demoted him, during protests against his machinations and a general strike, installed himself as president. He dispatched his hapless civilian appointee of August, Ernest Shonekan, and now admits that he, General Abacha, is running the place.

General Abacha made the usual pledge to restore democracy and end military rule, while closing publications and local governments. He heard the usual tough talk from Britain, the United States and other countries that believe Africans are entitled to democracy.

But along with appointing an 11-man junta mostly of generals and police officials, and pre-emptively striking at any opposition, the general made some politically shrewd decisions.

He rescinded austerity measures including a whopping fuel price increase that international lending institutions had required. This induced the labor movement to end its damaging strike.

He named Baba Gana Kinsibe, the diplomat elected vice president in the June election that was canceled, to be foreign minister, charged with selling foreigners on the legitimacy of the new regime. Mr. Kinsibe had been running mate of Moshood K. O. Abiola, the businessman who clearly won the presidency that was nullified by the outgoing strong man, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.

General Abacha named a lawyer who campaigns for democracy to be attorney general and a newspaper publisher from the South to be internal affairs minister, a post always held by a Northerner. The generals are Muslims from the Northern Hausa or Fulani tribes who keep putting down the better educated Ibo or Yoruba from the south.

General Abacha also entertained a mystery visit from Mr. Abiola. He installed a top deputy, Lt. Gen. Oladapo Diya, who quickly told fellow generals, "Our countrymen are sick of military rule."

Nigeria is home to 90 million diverse and talented people and untold oil wealth. A simple strongman regime will not suffice. Nigeria needs a system of government reflecting its diversity and talent. Electoral democracy would do that. If General Abacha can make any positive contribution to his country, it would be to make himself an anachronism, and step out of the way.

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