Dictator had greater fear of threats within Nigeria Hangings of critics seen as just part of power-holding strategy


ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- In deciding whether to proceed with the execution of one of his country's leading human rights campaigners and authors, Nigeria's military ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha, carefully weighed the possible repercussions.

In the weeks before the hanging of opposition figure Ken Saro-Wiwa, the international community had been sending increasingly emphatic signals that his execution would earn Nigeria the world's condemnation.

By going ahead anyway with the executions of Mr. Saro-Wiwa, 54, and eight associates, General Abacha seems to have decided that international isolation is less terrifying than the perils of Nigeria's internal politics.

With tragedies such as Rwanda and Somalia fresh in many minds, the Nigerian leader also appeared to be betting that, beyond withdrawing ambassadors and expelling the nation from the Commonwealth, few in the West would want to risk further destabilizing Africa's most populous country.

Since taking power in a military coup in June 1993, General Abacha has played a game of constantly rising stakes in which he has imprisoned, killed or otherwise silenced one perceived rival after another.

In rough order, his targets have been civilian politicians, labor unions, prominent former military figures and traditional tribal leaders, including those from his native north.

In the process, General Abacha has made so many enemies in his country of 100 million people that he now seems trapped in a destructive dynamic of his own making. Either he ruthlessly pursues his campaign of repression, keeping his fellow citizens on the defensive, or he pauses, risking appearing weak and perhaps inviting his own overthrow.

Diplomats concede that, however brutal, the logic may not be altogether flawed. With Nigeria sliding deeper into economic decay in the two years that General Abacha has held power, discontent is high in the country's army of 200,000, whose pay is low and often late, and military prestige at an ebb.

Many around General Abacha are said to believe that killing supposed opponents will deter challenges by more serious rivals, especially within the military. With the Saro-Wiwa case, General Abacha apparently had come to agree.

"This man is himself a past master at coup-making, having participated at the highest levels of every coup in Nigeria going back to Buhari," said one diplomat, referring to the seizure of power by Gen. Mohammed Buhari in 1983, when General Abacha was a young infantry commander.

"If there is one thing that gives him a blue fear, it is that some middle-level officers are going to get together and come for him one night," the diplomat said. "He knows that they won't take him prisoner."

For many, General Abacha's choice of Mr. Saro-Wiwa as his latest victim may seem odd.

A mild-mannered intellectual, whose writings, if sardonically critical of the powerful, have always been of a peaceable bent, Mr. Saro-Wiwa still represented a graver threat than General Abacha's imagined coup-plotters.

Few outside government circles believe Mr. Saro-Wiwa was actually guilty of inciting the murders of four tribal leaders in his native Rivers State in May 1994.

But his campaign for greater rights for his Ogoni ethnic group struck at Nigeria's most sensitive political points.

In his writings and political activities, Mr. Saro-Wiwa had urged the government to allot a fairer share of Nigeria's oil revenues to his desperately poor home region, which became one of country's first oil-producing centers more than three decades ago.

When the government replied with military raids that have been described in official documents as "wasting operations," members of Mr. Saro-Wiwa's Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People declared a wish for sovereignty over their homelands.

As the leader of a thinly glued nation of 250 ethnic groups, many of which deeply resent the long years of domination by northern military officers, General Abacha apparently saw the Ogoni struggle for minority rights as a Pandora's box that, once opened, would lead to a breakup of the nation.

The Biafra conflict in the late 1960s had already given Nigeria a bitter taste of civil war.

Perhaps just as worrisome to General Abacha was the bid for a more equitable distribution of oil revenues. Diplomats say the general has become a billionaire, and many other senior military officials multimillionaires, by controlling the oil sector, which provides more than 80 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings.

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