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Nigeria: Sanctions Need New Push
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Nigeria: Sanctions Need New Push
Date Distributed (ymd): 960324
After the Nigerian military regime hanged environmental and
human rights leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists on
Nov. 10, 1995, there was a wave of protest around the world.
Hundreds of organizations spoke up to denounce the execution
of Saro-Wiwa, a leader of the Ogoni people in the Niger delta.
The international campaign in support of the democracy
movement in Nigeria took on significant momentum.
Even before the executions, the United States and other
governments criticized the Nigerian regime, cut off aid,
restricted arms sales, and imposed visa restrictions on
Nigerian officials. After the executions, the U.S. and other
foreign ambassadors were withdrawn from Nigeria in protest,
previous sanctions somewhat strengthened and stronger actions
threatened. President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, who had
also invested his prestige in "quiet diplomacy," led a
successful move to suspend Nigeria from the Commonwealth and
called for oil sanctions.
Oil sanctions have been endorsed by a wide range of
individuals and organizations, including Nobel Prize winners
Wole Soyinka and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Human Rights
Watch, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, TransAfrica,
the Washington Office on Africa, and many other international
and Nigerian groups. But governments have been reluctant to
take stronger sanctions, particularly any affecting Nigeria's
Bills introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Kassebaum (R-Kan.)
and in the House by Rep. Payne (D-N.J.) fall short of
comprehensive sanctions. But they do include new measures
that go beyond the Administration's actions to date, including
a ban on all new U.S. investment in Nigeria and a freeze on
the personal assets of top officials of the Nigerian regime.
After an extensive policy review, the Clinton administration
in early March floated a trial balloon of similar measures.
But reaction from European countries has been negative. And
the quiet return of ambassadors to Nigeria, including the U.S.
and South Africa, has given the impression of a trend to
lessen rather than increase public pressure.
Meanwhile Congress is focused on domestic issues, and Nigeria
has faded from the news. The momentum for stronger action
from either the administration or Congress will continue to
drop unless the Nigerian regime adds new well-publicized
provocations or the pro-democracy movement succeeds in
escalating protests. If the United States is to give more
than lip-service support to Nigerians seeking democracy for
their country, sustained public pressure is essential.
Background to the Crisis
Since independence in 1960, Nigeria has alternated between
short periods of intense civilian political competition and
longer stretches under military rule. Military governments
ruled from 1966 to 1979, and from 1984 to the present.
Under British rule, Nigeria was divided administratively into
three geographical areas: the north, predominantly Muslim and
Hausa-speaking; the southeast, predominantly Christian and
identified with the Igbo-speaking ethnic group; and the
southwest, also predominantly Christian and largely
Between 1967 and 1970, Nigeria fought a civil war over the
secession of the eastern region, called Biafra. Despite
intense ethnic polarization and perhaps as many as one million
killed during the war, the winning federal government followed
a policy of non-retribution. Subsequent division of Nigeria
into smaller states produced larger representation for ethnic
groups other than the big three.
While political competition often paralleled ethnic and
regional divisions, there were also many cross-cutting
divisions and alliances based on distinctions between civilian
and military, rich and poor, and a host of other factors. A
wide array of groups--private business, communications media,
labor unions, professional associations, religious bodies, and
a literary scene with world-renowned authors--built solid
foundations for democratic culture and a vibrant civil
Military Rejection of Democracy
In 1987 President Ibrahim Babangida, who came to power in a
1985 coup, officially began a program of transition to
civilian rule. After many delays, it culminated in
presidential elections in June 1993.
The electoral system imposed two political parties created by
the military: the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the
Social Democratic Party (SDP). Both parties chose wealthy
Muslim businessmen to run for president. The NRC candidate
was Bashir Tofa, from northern Nigeria; Chief Moshood Abiola,
from the southwest, was the candidate for the SDP. Although
both had been approved by the military, Abiola, a flamboyant
media magnate and philanthropist, was seen as potentially more
Abiola won majorities in 22 of Nigeria's 31 states. Even in
the north, he won 43% of the vote, including majorities in
four of the 11 northern states. Northern feudal leaders and
sections of the military feared loss of their power.
President Babangida refused to allow official announcement of
the vote count and annulled the results, alleging that the
candidates had been buying votes.
Protests followed, in which the army killed more than 150
demonstrators, finally leading Babangida to resign. He
installed his own civilian caretaker, Ernest Shonekan, who was
in turn deposed by General Sani Abacha, a high-ranking member
of the previous military regime.
The new regime removed previously elected national and state
legislatures and civilian state governments and banned all
political activity. Since General Abacha took power in
November 1993, human rights abuses by the regime have
increased and have been met with escalating protests.
In June 1994, shortly before the first anniversary of the
election, Chief Abiola proclaimed himself president. He was
promptly arrested and put on trial for treason. Hundreds of
other opposition figures and activists have also been arrested
or harassed, and some have been mistreated in prison.
Although some have been released after periods of detention,
most have not.
The military has tried to portray the pro-democracy forces as
simply ethnic compatriots and supporters of Abiola from the
Yoruba-speaking southwest. But the campaign is in fact much
wider, and includes Nigerians of all ethnic groups and
religions. Almost all stress that their priority is support
for the democratic process as such, not the political fortunes
of one man.
The campaign includes human rights groups which have long been
active in demanding electoral democracy and respect for civil
rights. Although Abiola is a Muslim, both Catholic and
Protestant church groups have made statements calling for the
results of the June 1993 elections to be honored. National
organizations representing Nigeria's doctors, university
teachers and staff, and students have actively pressed for the
release of political prisoners and recognition of the election
The Campaign for Democracy, which spearheaded the
demonstrations leading to Babangida's resignation, is the
largest coalition of independent pro-democracy groups inside
the country. A National Democratic Coalition, meanwhile, was
formed in May 1994 by political figures opposed to the regime,
including many elected officials dismissed from their posts.
In 1994, Nigeria's oil worker unions went out on strike,
including among their demands a hand-over of government to the
civilian winner of the June 1993 election. Oil accounts for
over 80% of Nigeria's export earnings, and the strike was
extremely effective for two months. The military eventually
broke the strike, arresting key officials and suspending the
leadership of the two oil unions and the Nigerian Labor
In October 1995, General Abacha announced a new three-year
program of transition to civilian rule and commuted death
sentences for some 40 opponents of the government in prison
for allegedly planning a coup. The regime sought to portray
its opponents as unpatriotic and their international
supporters as mounting a campaign against Nigeria as a
country. And it continued the well-worn strategy of buying
out some opposition figures while harassing or forcing others
Legal maneuvers or international pressure sometimes forced the
regime to reverse its steps. But newspapers with bans lifted
after promises of self-censorship still had to fear arson,
confiscation of published papers, and attacks on journalists.
Human rights activists who managed to get out on bail could
expect to be redetained at any moment. And even world-famous
figures such as Nobel Prize-winning writer Wole Soyinka were
forced to flee into exile. Former head of state General
Olusegun Obasanjo, who handed over power peacefully to
civilian rule in 1979 and subsequently made an international
reputation as a statesman, was arrested in March 1995. He
remains in prison along with others sentenced by a military
tribunal for alleged involvement in a coup attempt.
In November, finally, came the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and
his colleagues. The hangings capped years of protest by
Saro-Wiwa's movement against environmental degradation of
Ogoni land by multinational oil companies, particularly Shell
Oil. According to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch,
and other human rights organizations, the military tribunal
which tried Saro-Wiwa on charges of instigating the murder of
four Ogoni leaders was marked by torture of witnesses and
other abuses. The nine activists were executed despite
appeals for clemency from many world leaders.
Since then, the regime, apparently impervious to the wave of
international criticism, has continued on its course. It has
consistently rejected demands to release political prisoners,
and in February this year refused to consider a proposal by
the National Democratic Coalition for an alternative one-year
transition to civilian rule. The Coalition's plan includes
release of presidential election winner Abiola, the creation
of a transitional government of national unity, and the
calling of a sovereign national conference to draft a new
Local elections the regime claims are a first step to
democracy were held last week. They have been dismissed by
pro-democracy advocates, given the failure to release
political prisoners and the fact that those elected may be
dismissed at will by the head of state.
The International Response
With the options for protest inside Nigeria being steadily
narrowed, much of the dynamic of the pro-democracy struggle
has moved to the international arena. As with the
anti-apartheid movement in the 1960s and 1970s, this
international movement is built on the efforts both of exiles
and of a wide range of non-Nigerian friends.
Dozens of small groups operate among the large Nigerian
expatriate population in the United States and elsewhere. Key
common demands are that political prisoners be freed and that
the military step down.
Internationally, the pro-democracy movement has drawn in
environmentalists, human rights activists, trade unionists,
church groups, students and many others, in addition to Africa
advocacy groups. Vested interests and inertia, however, mean
that the obstacles to bringing significant pressure on the
regime are still very large.
Only days after the executions, Shell Oil and other companies
decided to proceed with plans for a $3.8 billion investment in
a new natural gas facility. Oil provides over 90% of
Nigeria's export earnings, and the regime's survival depends
on these earnings.
The United States is the largest customer for Nigeria's oil,
consuming more than 40% of the country's output. However, oil
from Nigeria accounts for only 8% of U.S. oil imports, and
3.5% of total U.S. oil consumption. "It is both economically
possible and morally imperative that we stop the consumption
of the oil that fuels the current regime," noted a December
1995 statement endorsed by almost 100 U.S.-based church, human
rights, labor, environmental and pro-democracy groups.
The current bills before Congress are limited steps. But they
would impose real penalties on the regime, and would build
momentum for stronger action if the military still refuses to
budge. The Senate legislation also specifically urges the
Administration to seek support for international embargoes on
oil imports and arms sales to Nigeria.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
1. Become informed:
* Contact the International Roundtable on Nigeria, c/o Amnesty
International, c/o Amnesty International USA, 304 Pennsylvania
Ave SE, Washington DC 20003, Tel: (202) 544-0200, Ext. 234;
Fax: (202) 546-7142.
* Get in touch in your community with one of the many local
pro-democracy groups of Nigerians in the U.S. There is no one
central office, but local contact information should be
available from Dr. Bolaji Aluko or Dr. Julius Ihonvbere,
Global Network of Nigerian Organizations, P.O. Box 91291,
Washington, DC 20090 or P.O. Box 200985, Austin, TX 78720.
Tel: (202) 806-6617 or (512) 335-0287; Fax: (202) 805-4632 or
(512) 471-1061; E-mail: email@example.com or
* If you have access to the World Wide Web, find current
information from a wide variety of sources beginning at the
Web site of the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars:
* The Sierra Club has been particularly active in pushing the
legislative initiative for sanctions. More information on
congressional action is also available from Stephen Mills,
Sierra Club International Program, (202) 675-6691, or by
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit
the Sierra Club on the WWW and check out their Ken Saro-Wiwa
page at http://www.sierraclub.org.
2. Take Local Action
Raise the issue in your local church, church council, or local
government, working with other concerned groups. Such action
helps educate the public and lets national officials know that
citizens care. Among other groups, the Church Council of
Greater Seattle and the New York City Council have passed
strong pro-democracy resolutions on Nigeria, including support
for the sanctions bills before Congress.
3. Contact Congress
Write or call your members of Congress. Ask your Senators to
co-sponsor S. 1419, introduced by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum. Ask
your Representative to co-sponsor H.R. 2697, introduced by
Rep. Donald Payne. Urge them to press for quick action to
impose significant sanctions against the Nigerian military
regime. Be sure to mention any local initiatives under way in
your community (see #2). Send copies of your letters to the
sponsors (Sen. Kassebaum and Rep. Payne), to the White House,
and to the U.S. State Department.
Note: By January 23, twenty Senators had agreed to co-sponsor
S. 1419. No new co-sponsors have been added since then. By
February 28, 55 Representatives had signed up as co-sponsors
of H.R. 2697. No new co-sponsors have been added since then.
The address for senators is U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510;
for members of the House, write to U.S. House of
Representatives, Washington, DC 20515. Capitol Switchboard for
reaching congressional offices: (202) 224-3121.
Mr. Anthony Lake, National Security Advisor, National Security
Council, White House, Washington, DC 20500
Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Department of State,
Washington, DC 20520
[Note to non-U.S. readers: This posting is provided both
for your background information and for possible forwarding
to those of your U.S. contacts you think would be interested.]
This material is produced and distributed by the Washington
Office on Africa (WOA), a not-for-profit church, trade union
and civil rights group supported organization that works with
Congress on Africa-related legislation. WOA's educational
affiliate is the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC).