Nigeria on the Bubble

June 11, 1995

7/8 TC Nigerian military dictator Sani Abacha is nervous about tomorrow's second anniversary of the canceled election that the imprisoned Moshood Abiola won. He is concerned about the resistance of Mr. Abiola's Yoruba people in the southwest.

Hence the arrests of dozens of opposition Yoruba leaders. Hence the bellicose threats after the terrorist bombing in the Yoruba town of Ilorin, killing three and wounding 50. Hence the military trial of 23 men accused of plotting a coup, and the house arrest of the one military strong man who did return Nigeria to civil rule, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo.

Nigeria is not just another African dictatorship. With some 100 million people, it is Africa's most populous nation and, with oil for export, one of its wealthiest. It has a tradition of good education along the coast, productive and ingenious peoples.

Nigeria was going to be Africa's first industrial power, first continental power broker, first permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Instead, with its ethnic animosities and resistance to the Abacha dictatorship, it could become a Liberia writ huge, or an anarchy on the scale of Zaire.

That explains the sudden attention Nigeria is receiving from the world community. The international soccer federation called off its world junior championships in Nigeria. The country's Nobel laureate for literature, Wole Soyinka, fled into exile.

TransAfrica, the Washington lobbying group, urged a U.S. boycott of Nigerian oil, half of which comes here. South Africa President Nelson Mandela, who is the continental leader that no Nigerian counterpart ever became, sent Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu to plead for Mr. Abiola's release from prison. To no avail.

Crime, corruption and tyranny have sapped Nigeria's energy and turned much of its talent to drug trafficking. The political paralysis is tied up with rivalry between the dominant Muslim peoples of the north who control the army, and the Christian and animist peoples of the coast who provide much of the intellectual and business leadership.

Accommodations are possible but not when the greed of rulers gets in the way. General Abacha is the problem. His voluntary departure would be a first step toward a solution.

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