Nigeria Heads Toward Civil War, and the World Looks Elsewhere

<i> Adonis E. Hoffman is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the former director of African affairs for the House of Representatives</i>

Nigeria’s most precious commodity--oil--is once again the focal point of increased international attention to the country’s promise and problems. Coupled with the military govern ment’s retreat from democracy, strikes by Nigeria’s oil workers have hiked the global price of oil, crippled the Nigerian economy and brought the country to a virtual standstill. Unless the dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha relinquishes its political and economic chokehold, releases President-elect Moshood K.O. Abiola from jail and reinstates the duly elected government, Nigeria will sink into civil war.

In a heralded effort to break from its legacy of military intervention in state affairs, Nigeria embarked on its latest sojourn to democracy in 1986, when Gen. Ibrahim Babangida announced he would voluntarily give up the presidency as part of a national program of democratic reform. In an unprecedented show of confidence, the general who had seized power in 1985 spent millions on a public-relations campaign in the United States aimed at convincing U.S. policy-makers that his program for reform was viable.

Babangida took much longer than promised to deliver. But after a confusing series of party congresses and qualifying primaries, he allowed the first national elections for president in a decade to go forward, setting June 12, 1993, as election day. More than 15 million Nigerians cast ballots, and the winner was Abiola, a wealthy--as in billionaire--industrialist.

Given Nigeria’s ethnic, religious and regional divisions, Abiola’s ability to unify the increasingly fractious country underscored his victory and signaled a new republic in the making. But before he could take office, Babangida’s National Defense and Security Council intervened and “annulled” the voting results. After a brief reimposition of military rule, Babangida, ever protective of his international reputation, stepped down in August, 1993, but not before installing an interim government headed by Ernest Shonekan, a politician whose puppet strings were pulled by Abacha.


Shonekan’s government quickly proved to be incapable of governing. One of his last acts of state, reportedly at Abacha’s direction, was to increase fuel prices sevenfold, sparking feverish demonstrations by oil workers and pro-democracy groups. Given the military’s de facto hold on power, it was only a matter of time before Abacha seized de jure control of the government.

In November, 1993, Abacha did just that, embarking upon a heavy-handed program of centralized control. Progress toward democracy was halted. Political and ethnic polarities resurfaced. The Nigerian economy plummeted to subterranean levels, with unemployment rising from 28% to 72%. And the extent of social dislocation is captured by the statistic that robbery or murder, particularly in Lagos, the capital, occurs at a rate of one incident every 40 minutes.

Abacha’s fatal coup de grace , however, may well have been the unwarranted jailing of Abiola on charges of treason. Calculated to take the steam out of the pro-democracy movement, the arrest has produced the opposite effect. A once fractious group of pro-democracy activists has focused worldwide attention on Abacha’s repressive regime. Since the arrest, rioting has become more widespread and violent, with the death toll rising. Pro-democracy activists, unionists, students and oil workers vow to continue their demonstrations until Abiola is released. Attaching conditions, as a judge did last week, to Abiola’s release that would, in effect, maintain his political silence will not work. Abiola refused to comply with the order.

To its credit, the Clinton Administration has maintained an arms-length relationship with Nigeria. After the Abacha regime proved its propensity for brutality, Washington suspended foreign assistance and barred Nigerian officials from traveling to the United States.


Congress, meanwhile, has been less certain about what to do. Many members, including some in the Black Caucus, have not focused on Nigeria. One possible explanation is the extraordinary sums of money being spent by the Nigerian dictator on high-priced lobbyists in Washington. According to Justice Department records, the government of Nigeria spent close to $5 million over a 24-month period for lobbying, government relations and public relations. All this from a country that has trouble paying its basic bank bills.

Nigeria’s political and economic stability is--or should be--squarely on our national-interest agenda. Although the country has been shielded from extensive coverage by other world events, the crisis in Nigeria looms as large and important as any issue facing the African continent, including the war in Angola and the devastation in Rwanda. Nigeria, it should be remembered, is America’s third-largest supplier of crude oil. The military dictatorship relies almost exclusively on petroleum revenues to maintain its illegal occupation of the government. Stiffer economic and diplomatic sanctions, which are contained in a House-passed bill sponsored by two Black Caucus members, can be effective, as can the prospect of a multilateral boycott of Nigerian petroleum. The appointment of a special envoy steeped in diplomacy and African affairs, such as Donald McHenry, to deal with Abacha may also be appropriate.

Given what is at stake, it appears that the threshold premise for any diplomatic effort should be the release of Abiola and the peaceful transfer of presidential and state power. Without a considered response to the Nigerian crisis, it is conceivable that even a country like Nigeria can fall from the grace of the middle-income national prosperity into an abyss of self-destruction.