Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Pressuring Military Rulers Works - Sometimes NIGERIA

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Pressuring Military Rulers Works - Sometimes NIGERIA

Article excerpt


ON Nov. 10, Ken Saro-Wiwa, poet and journalist, and eight others were hanged by Nigeria's military government. A month earlier, death sentences of Olusegun Obasanjo, former soldier and head of state, and other alleged plotters were commuted to life imprisonment. What do the differences in the two cases suggest about the Nigerian rulers' real concerns and which external pressures are effective?

Obasanjo was accused of plotting against the regime. Saro-Wiwa was charged with encouraging the murder of four tribal chiefs, presumably supporters of the military government. Conspiring to overthrow the national government is thus a less serious crime than stimulating resistance to the ruling generals at the local level. After all, Gen. Sani Abacha and his ministers had themselves a long record of plotting against governments. But other factors were at work. Saro-Wiwa and his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni Peoples agitated against the environmental practices of Shell Oil and other companies operating in the Niger Delta. They demanded compensation. The "crime": threatening economic interests.

As have other companies in similar situations, Shell, producer of half of Nigeria's oil, felt it could not intervene in a local affair. At stake were shareholder interests, market responsibilities, and contractual obligations to the Nigerian government. For the soldiers running the country, plotting against the regime was serious, but agitating against a major wealth-producer was more so.

As an intellectual, Saro-Wiwa represented an even greater threat to the regime than did Obasanjo. Saro-Wiwa ridiculed the generals and officers running the country. Nothing angers a proud and vulnerable political or military figure as much as satire - especially if it cuts close to the bone of truth. Influential intellectuals are especially anathema to authoritarian power. When military figures have power to react, they do.

Pressures from the West appear to be more powerful than those from Africa. Both Obasanjo and Saro-Wiwa were known abroad. Obasanjo moved in the rarefied atmosphere of international conferences, think tanks, and organizations of former heads of state. …

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