Nigeria: The World's Newest Pariah State

By Onadipe, Abiodun | Contemporary Review, February 1996 | Go to article overview

Nigeria: The World's Newest Pariah State

Onadipe, Abiodun, Contemporary Review

On November 17, 1995, General Sani Abacha celebrated his second year as Nigeria's military head of state following the palace coup that ousted the interim government of Ernest Shonekan. During this period, Nigeria has been lurching from one political disaster to another, reducing the country to a shadow of its former self. Shortly before his second anniversary, Abacha outraged international opinion by executing a prominent writer. The fact is that the giant of Africa appears to be sinking in the political quagmire of its own making over the past two years culminating in its unprecedented two-year suspension from the Commonwealth at the recent Auckland Summit.

How did Nigeria come to this pass? The rot started with the annulment of the presidential elections of June 12, 1993 by the former dictator General Ibrahim Babangida, who, in disgrace, handed power to a puppet civilian interim government headed by Shonekan. Abacha, who was the Defence Secretary, forced Shonekan to resign on the 83rd day ostensibly to hand over power to the undeclared winner of the annulled election, Moshood Abiola. But he reneged and sought to perpetuate his reign by brute force.

Like most other dictators, he started by intimidating and eliminating his political opponents both military and civilian. Abiola was hunted down like a criminal for declaring himself president in June 1994, because the deal he struck with Abacha remained unfulfilled. Abiola remains in detention without trial despite international pleas for his release on compassionate grounds. Abacha took on the labour movement, such as the militant oil workers' union, who were striking to protest against his brutal reign. He broke their morale by decapitating the leadership, throwing their leaders into jail and disbanding the executive, appointing in its place a military sole administrator. The junta also summarily shut down three privately-run newspaper houses which were ultra-critical of its actions, throwing thousands of people out of work. The newspapers were deproscribed in October after an 18-month ban. (For a detailed description see my article in November's Contemporary Review.)

Next, in July 1995, Abacha stage-managed the biggest coup plot trial in Nigeria's history, in the process sentencing a former head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo, and his deputy, Shehu Yar'Adua, and 38 others to varying jail terms, with 13 of them sentenced to death. This action further inflamed the ire of the international community, whose pleas for clemency inundated the Nigerian leader. In October, Abacha bowed to international pressure to spare the lives of the coup plotters by commuting the sentences. But he seemed determined that his acquiescence should not be interpreted as weakness. Ken Saro-Wiwa's execution proved the point. Indirectly, the political crisis stemming from the annulment led to the execution of Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogonis and thus to Nigeria's current pariah status. In Nigeria's 25 years of military rule, no single issue has drawn the wrath of the international community as these executions.

Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa was an internationally-acclaimed author and a campaigner for minority rights and ecological improvement, who took over the leadership of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in 1990 to reverse the destruction and marginalisation of Ogoniland and its people who inhabit the oil rich Niger delta by engaging head-on a multinational company which is backed by powerful foreign and domestic interest. MOSOP through Saro-Wiwa internationalised the peculiar problems of the oil community in Nigeria, particularly the Ogonis, by shedding light on the working practices of the oil companies in their exploration and evacuation processes. This forced the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company - the major operator in Ogoniland - to stop production there in 1993, invariably affecting the government's revenue. In short, Saro-Wiwa could not be ignored.

It has been reported that in 1993 Abacha tried and failed to lure Saro-Wiwa to serve in the junta, in an attempt at destroying his credibility. …

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