Defiant Nigeria Regime Executes Rights Activist : Africa: Playwright, eight other dissidents are hanged. Move sparks global condemnation, may prompt sanctions.


Defying urgent appeals for clemency from the Clinton Administration and other governments, Nigeria’s military rulers hanged human rights and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other government opponents Friday in a case that could spur sharp international action against the dictatorship.

The summary executions by Gen. Sani Abacha’s regime were angrily denounced by governments, political leaders and human rights groups around the globe.

The widespread outrage further isolated the rulers of Africa’s most populous nation and deepened a political crisis there.

In Washington, President Clinton recalled the U.S. ambassador from Lagos--the country’s sprawling commercial capital--for consultations. He also halted military aid to Nigeria and extended a ban on travel to the United States by senior Nigerian officials.


White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said Clinton also directed the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, to begin consultations on appropriate U.N. measures “to condemn these actions.”

South African President Nelson Mandela and British Prime Minister John Major quickly called for Nigeria’s expulsion from the Commonwealth, a 52-nation group of Britain and its former colonies and territories.

Saro-Wiwa, one of Nigeria’s most prominent authors and playwrights, and his colleagues went to the gallows just before midday at the main prison in the southern oil capital of Port Harcourt, the News Agency of Nigeria reported. It said they were buried within hours under tight security.

The men were convicted of murder last month by a special government-appointed tribunal. They were hanged two days after the Provisional Ruling Council, led by Abacha, ratified the death sentences. No further appeals were allowed.

Critics said the charges were trumped up, and the accused were denied due process and fair trials, to crush opposition to the regime.

The executions appeared to be a special rebuke to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that opened Friday in Auckland, New Zealand. The group had issued an urgent plea earlier Friday to Nigeria, a member state, to pardon the convicted men.

“They obviously don’t care about public opinion,” a Western diplomat said in a telephone interview from Lagos. “Why anyone in his right mind would pull this off in the middle of the Commonwealth conference is beyond me. The timing couldn’t be worse.”


Mandela, who is attending the summit, angrily demanded that Nigeria be expelled from the Commonwealth for committing what he called “this heinous act” and said he will urge other international bodies to suspend Nigeria.

It was a sharp and presumably painful reversal for Mandela, who has faced growing criticism here for previously urging a policy of “quiet persuasion” and “gentle diplomacy” to maintain dialogue with the Abacha regime.

South Africa’s Anglican archbishop, Desmond M. Tutu, went further, calling for “stringent economic, sporting and diplomatic sanctions” against Nigeria for what he called “a diabolical act.”

“It is as if they are telling the world to go to hell,” Tutu said, appearing near tears on television here.

The executions were expected to increase international support for punitive sanctions, including a possible oil embargo. Nigeria gets 80% of its revenue from oil exports, with about half the oil going to the United States.

Nigeria is the fourth-largest producer of OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Washington already imposes limited sanctions against the regime, including the travel ban for Nigerian officials, a ban on flights from Nigeria and a cutoff of all but humanitarian aid.

Further sanctions could include a ban on U.S. investment in Nigeria or a freeze on overseas assets of the nation’s rulers, who are widely believed to have stolen billions of dollars through graft and corruption.

Abacha seized power in 1993; his is the seventh military regime to rule Nigeria since independence 35 years ago. His rule has been especially harsh, however, with allegations of mass executions, torture and the imprisonment of hundreds of journalists, labor leaders and political rivals.

Still, Friday’s executions came as a surprise, since Abacha had responded to severe international pressure last month by issuing a last-minute pardon to another high-profile group condemned to death.

On Oct. 1, Abacha said he would commute the sentences of Moshood K.O. Abiola, who was jailed last year after claiming victory in a 1993 democratic presidential election that was annulled by the military; former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s only military leader to hand over power to civilians, and about 40 others convicted in a secret trial of plotting a coup.

Abacha did not release the men, or any other political prisoners held by the government. He also announced that he planned to stay in power another three years before allowing democratic elections.


Saro-Wiwa, 54, led the only militant opposition to the Abacha regime. He was president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, a small but increasingly popular organization that used sabotage and public protests to back demands for compensation for environmental damage to Ogoni lands by the government and a subsidiary of Royal Dutch/Shell, the international oil consortium.

Saro-Wiwa was arrested in May, 1994, after a riot broke out during a political rally and four pro-government Ogoni leaders were killed. Saro-Wiwa insisted he was not present and had no role in the slayings.

Over the next several months, government security forces launched a brutal crackdown against Saro-Wiwa’s supporters and others in Ogoniland.

Human rights groups and witnesses said troops killed or injured hundreds of civilians, raped women and burned and looted Ogoni villages.

News reports Friday from Port Harcourt said Saro-Wiwa’s supporters had lined streets near the prison and wept openly after the executions. Tanks and heavily armed soldiers were reportedly deployed near oil depots, refineries and other key installations.

“They are afraid they could be attacked by irate Ogoni people,” an 18-year-old student said by telephone. He asked not to be identified, out of concern for his safety.


Reaction to the executions was more muted in Lagos, residents and diplomats said in telephone interviews.

“People are frightened to go out right now,” said Paul Adams, a British journalist. He said he does not expect many protests because most opposition leaders are either dead, in jail or in exile.

“The Nigerians have calculated that they can get away with this,” Adams added. “They argue that this was a domestic issue, that they held a trial and carried out the sentence, and it’s nobody else’s business.”

Emeka Izeze, editor of the Guardian, the country’s most respected independent newspaper, said he was shocked at the executions.

“We didn’t think it would take place,” he said. “It’s just going to worsen the political crisis here.”

Izeze said he knew Saro-Wiwa well and had cautioned him last year about his anti-government campaign.

“I told him, ‘You are taking too many risks,’ ” he said. “He said, ‘Someone has to do it.’ ”

After he was convicted of murder, Saro-Wiwa released a stirring statement that suggested he had no regrets as he faced the hangman.

“I have devoted my intellectual and material resources, my very life, to a cause in which I have total belief and from which I cannot be blackmailed or intimidated,” he said.

Saro-Wiwa wrote numerous plays, children’s books, novels and a popular television series in Nigeria. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year for championing minority rights of small ethnic groups.


Saro-Wiwa was educated at the University of Ibadan and later taught at several Nigerian universities.

He was married with several children, including a son, Ken, who was lobbying for clemency for his father at the summit in New Zealand when news arrived that it was too late.