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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Nigeria: APIC Update Alert

Nigeria: APIC Update Alert
Date distributed (ymd): 980305
APIC Document

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Region: West Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +economy/development+ +US policy focus+
Summary Contents:
This posting contains an APIC Update Action Alert on Nigeria,
summarizing the current context and giving options for action to support
democracy in Nigeria. Sources are also noted for more extensive background
and updates.

+++++++++++++++++end profile++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Stronger Pressure Needed to Move Nigeria to Democracy

It is now almost five years since the Nigerian military regime overturned the results of Nigeria's June 12, 1993 presidential election. It is more than two years since the regime executed environmental and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight colleagues in defiance of worldwide appeals for clemency.

While the United States has joined others around the world in criticizing the lack of democracy in Nigeria, the flow of money tells a different story. U.S. investments in Nigeria, led by investment in the oil sector, have grown from around $4 billion to as much as $7 billion over the last five years. Bilateral trade increased from $4.9 billion in 1994 to $6.7 billion in 1996.

Meanwhile, the Clinton Administration's internal policy review on Nigeria has dragged on for several years. President Clinton is planning a visit to Africa in March, including two West African countries, Senegal and Ghana. The President needs to hear that failure to take a stronger position on Nigeria, before or during his trip, will send a strong signal that Washington is not serious about supporting African pro-democracy efforts.

The military regime headed by General Sani Abacha continues with its plans for a "transition" to civilian rule by October. But the scheme has won little credibility. Meanwhile, political prisoners languish in jail and the government has stepped up repression against critics, journalists and members of the Ogoni minority group in the Delta area.

Shell, Mobil and other multinational oil companies are heavily invested in Nigeria's energy sector. They continue to deny that they bear any responsibility for the human rights abuses of the Nigerian government. It is a fact nonetheless that oil revenues bolster the repressive regime.

Activists from Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) have protested environmental contamination of the land by the multinational oil companies, particularly Shell. The oil companies claim they are improving their environmental standards and their relationships with local communities in the oil-producing regions of Nigeria. Ogoni activists remain in detention, however.

As long as new oil investment flows into Nigeria, swelling the bank accounts of its military rulers, criticism from Western capitals will be dismissed as empty rhetoric. This is so even if the decibel level moves up a notch from "quiet" diplomacy. Supporting democracy in Nigeria, advocates must continue to stress, requires going beyond talk to action which imposes real penalties for failure to move toward democratic rule.


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.

As a British colony, Nigeria was administered as three distinct 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 Yoruba-speaking.

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 a 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, between rich and poor, and a host of other factors. A wide array of groups--private business, independent 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 society.

Human Rights Abuses

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 1993.

The electoral system imposed two political parties created by the military. Both parties chose wealthy Muslim businessmen to run for president. One candidate was Bashir Tofa, from northern Nigeria. The other was Chief Moshood Abiola, from the southwest. Although both had been approved by the military, Abiola, a media magnate and philanthropist, was seen as potentially more independent.

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. President Babangida annulled the results of the election. When protests led Babangida to resign, he installed his own civilian caretaker, Ernest Shonekan. Shonekan was then deposed by General Sani Abacha in November 1993.

Abacha's rule has been marked by unprecedented levels of political repression against opponents from all walks of life. The most prominent case was the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his fellow Ogoni activists in 1995, just after General Abacha had announced his new three-year plan for return to civilian rule. In January this year, a new crackdown on Ogoni activists has renewed fears that others may die in prison. The regime has also targeted journalists, trade union leaders, human rights activists and political opponents, as well as repeatedly discovering alleged coup plots within its own ranks.

Prominent political prisoners include Chief Abiola, winner of the 1993 election; former head of state General Olesegun Obasanjo, who became a prominent international statesman after he handed over power to a civilian government in 1980; Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti and Shehu Sani, leaders of the Campaign for Democracy, which spearheaded demonstrations in 1993; Frank Kokori and Milton Dabibi of the oil workers union; Chima Ubani of the Civil Liberties Organization; and Batom Mitee of Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People--to name only a few. Scores of others are in detention, and hundreds more have been harassed or forced into exile. Kudirat Abiola, wife of the imprisoned election winner, was assassinated in 1996 in an incident widely attributed to covert agents of the regime. Major-General Musa Yar'Adua died in prison last December, and many other detainees are reported in poor health.

According to the U.S. State Department's human rights report for 1997, the transitional electoral process "failed to generate popular support for the authorized political parties or their leadership. The possibility of the transition program producing a serious presidential candidate other than Abacha appeared remote." Other sources confirm this analysis. The current "transition," notes a report from the U.S. Institute of Peace, "is so seriously flawed that it is not credible or legitimate." Abacha even fears possible opposition within his own regime. In December he arrested the country's second-highest-ranking military officer and others alleged to be planning a coup.

The International Response

Despite the Nigerian regime's influence-buying campaign in the United States and other countries, there is wide international consensus regarding the denial of democracy in Nigeria. There is, however, still much disagreement as to what should be done. Nigeria has been suspended from the Commonwealth, but its expulsion was postponed at the last Commonwealth summit in favor of a threat to take further action if democracy is not restored by October of this year. The United States and other countries have imposed restrictions on military sales, aid and visas for Nigerian military leaders. U.S. State Department human rights reports have been strongly critical of Nigeria, and former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria Walter Carrington won the enmity of the Nigerian regime for his support of human rights activists.

Overall, however, Washington has not made Nigeria a high priority. An Administration policy review has been pending for several years. Legislation has been introduced in Congress that would codify existing sanctions against Nigeria and impose new ones, including a ban on new U.S. investment in Nigeria. But the Administration has not supported the legislation, and the bill has yet to acquire enough congressional support to move ahead.

This failure to take stronger action, combined with the flow of additional investment, means that international pressure has in fact imposed little or no restraint on the Nigerian military regime. Nevertheless, an international grassroots movement of support for democracy in Nigeria has continued to grow, including Nigerian exiles, human rights and environmental groups, trade unions, religious groups and others.

This movement has appealed to the Nigerian government to change its behavior and to Western governments to impose sanctions. It has also targeted Shell Oil, demanding that the company accept responsibility for the environmental devastation it has caused and actively use its influence against human rights abuses. With tactics echoing the anti-apartheid movement, state and local governments in the United States have begun to enact their own sanctions against Shell and the Nigerian regime. It is only such a groundswell of actions that can eventually lead governments, and businesses as well, to take seriously democracy in Africa.


[Note to non-U.S. readers: This posting is designed primarily for U.S. readers. It is provided more widely both for your background information and for possible forwarding to those of your U.S. contacts you think would be interested.]

1. Contact President Clinton. Ask him to complete the internal Administration policy review on Nigeria before he travels to Africa, and to announce new substantive measures to pressure the Nigerian military regime to release prisoners and allow the country to return to democracy. Such measures should include, at the very least, a ban on new U.S. investment in Nigeria's energy sector. Remind the President that the absence of democracy in Africa's most populous country handicaps the entire continent's future, and that inconsistent U.S. policy has encouraged the military regime to resist change.

President Bill Clinton
The White House
Washington, DC 20500
White House comment line: (202) 456-1111

2. Write General Sani Abacha, head of the Nigerian military government. Urge him to release all political prisoners, lift barriers to free public debate, and implement a genuine transition to civilian rule. Remind him that groups around the world are mobilizing grassroots pressure in favor of democracy in Nigeria.

General Sani Abacha, Chairman
Provisional Ruling Council
State House
Abuja, Nigeria
Fax: 234-9-523-2138

Send a copy of your letter to:

Ambassador Wakili Hassan Adamu
Embassy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1333 16th St. NW
Washington, DC 20036
Fax: (202) 775-1385

3. Write Phillip J. Carroll, president of Shell Oil (U.S.) Let him know that Shell cannot evade responsibility for the environmental, social and political consequences of its investments in Nigeria. Ask him to let you know what action he is taking to ensure the release of Ogoni activists and other political prisoners in Nigeria and a return to civilian rule in that country.

Mr. Phillip J. Carroll, President
Shell Oil (U.S.)
P.O. Box 2463
Houston, TX 77252
Fax: (713) 241-4044

4. Send copies of your letters to your Senators and Representative in Congress.

Honorable ________
U.S. Senate

Washington, DC 20510

Honorable ________
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
Capitol switchboard: (202) 224-3121

For Additional Background and Updates

On the Web:

The Africa Policy Web Site ( has a Nigeria: Country Profile background paper, references to other sites and many additional documents on Nigerian issues.

The Africa News Web Site ( has current news, including dispatches from the Pan African News Agency.

By E-Mail:

The Africa Policy Electronic Distribution List ( reposts selected documents on Nigeria as well as other African issues, on average two to three times a week.

The Shell-Nigeria-Action listserv has frequent news and action alerts. To subscribe to the listserv send the message "subscribe shell-nigeria-action [your name]" to

In Print:

The Nigeria County Profile (8 pages) is available for sale ($2 each, $1.60 each for 20 or more, include 15% for postage and handling)from APIC, 110 Maryland Ave., NE, #509, Washington, DC 20002.

Additional books for suggested reading, including recent works by Ken Saro-Wiwa and Wole Soyinka, are noted in the Country Profile on-line ( Many are available for purchase on-line through the APIC Africa Web Bookshop ( in conjunction with the on-line bookshop

This material is produced and distributed by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC), the educational affiliate of the Washington Office on Africa. APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate in the United States around African issues and the U.S. role in Africa, by providing accessible policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a wide range of groups individuals.

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