Nigeria's unbenevolent dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, has reneged yet again on a promise to restore civilian rule. He now says he will not step down in 1996 and that he will hold onto power for three more years. That's outrageous. Abacha is treating his governmental office like a throne.
In his statement, issued Sunday, the general also refused to release political prisoners, including Moshood Abiola, the prominent pro-democracy leader and businessman who was elected president in 1993 but never took office. He was jailed by the military regime that assumed power in Lagos and established Abacha as the head of government. Abiola should be freed immediately, along with dozens of politicians, journalists and military leaders who had been working to restore democracy. The only thing good about their situation is that at least they are still alive, unlike the hundreds of Nigerians who have been killed during political protests.
President Clinton expressed disappointment at Abacha's decision but stopped short of imposing new sanctions. The White House should take a tougher stand. Nigeria should be treated like a pariah, much as South Africa was before it abandoned apartheid. Broad economic isolation, in addition to ending apartheid in South Africa, led to a colorblind democracy there. Such an international strategy could work for Nigeria.
There has been talk of an oil embargo (the United States is the No. 1 customer for Nigerian oil), but the Clinton Administration has indicated that would work only if all importing nations stopped buying Nigerian crude. But some country would have to take the lead; why not Washington?
Washington cut off most foreign aid after the 1993 elections were annulled by the military. America's humanitarian dollars were reduced to a trickle after the military government refused to control the drug trade in Nigeria, which had become a major stop in the global transfer of hard drugs from the East to the West.
The world cannot afford to let Nigeria disintegrate. It is Africa's most populous nation, the home of a proud people. Once an economic powerhouse, Nigeria under Abacha has become a poorhouse. He must be forced to restore democracy and leave the government in good hands.