Nigerian nightmare Nine executions: Blood-thirsty dictator increases his chances of being overthrown.

November 14, 1995

WHEN NIGERIAN dictator Gen. Sani Abacha shrugged off worldwide protests and ordered nine human-rights activists hanged Friday, he killed more than his political enemies. The despicable despot virtually assured that he will meet the fate of so many previous African military strongmen who have been deposed or murdered. As mild-mannered playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa vowed in his last words, "Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues."

The promising future of Nigeria changed for the worse in January 1966 -- just six years after independence from Great Britain. That was when an army major tried to stage a government takeover. He failed but other military coup-makers succeeded the very next day. General Abacha is just the latest of such usurpers in uniform, greedy men who are enriching themselves and their friends while this country of 100 million people is falling apart.

By executing Mr. Saro-Wiwa and the other campaigners for greater rights for the small Ogoni ethnic group, General Abacha hoped to send two messages -- that he will deal ruthlessly with dissidents and that he will not permit any ethnic agitation that could lead to unrest and civil war, as happened in Biafra in the late 1960s.

But there was yet a third message, making it clear to every Nigerian that Mr. Saro-Wiwa's talk about a more equitable distribution of oil revenues from foreign sales also was sedition. Even though he has become a billionaire in just two years in power, General Abacha is telling his fellow Nigerians that such looting should not be criticized or questioned.

He who lives by the sword dies by the sword. General Abacha knows this but thinks he can postpone his fate or cheat death. He is wrong. Every time he executes a principled man or a woman, he adds to the danger for himself.

The world now must do everything in its power to isolate this contemptuous tyrant. At the same, aid should be given to all those Nigerians, at home or abroad, who can work in the future to return their West African nation to democracy and stability.

Oil, which could have been a blessing to Nigeria, has become a curse. It has made controlling power so lucrative that military men blinded by avarice routinely overthrow civilian governments. The world must see to it that Africa's largest country does not deteriorate into another Zaire, a potentially wealthy country plundered by kleptomaniacs in uniform.

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