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

December 21, 1997|By MURRAY SEEGER

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.

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