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NIGERIA : Without Society-to-Society Ties, Sanctions Won't Help

November 19, 1995|Michael Clough and Nancy Bodurtha | Michael Clough is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Nancy Bodurtha is a program associate with the council.

NEW YORK — When Nigeria's dictatorship hanged famed author and political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others--after convicting them of murder in a kangaroo court--the cameras and computers of an outraged world focused on the troubled West African giant. It seemed possible that Saro-Wiwa's execution might boost efforts by TransAfrica's Randall Robinson, Amnesty International and others to impose new economic sanctions on Nigeria. But less than two weeks later, the Nigeria story is off the nightly news, and most analysts predict the sanctions campaign will fail.

For human-rights activists and a growing number of African Americans, supporting democracy in Nigeria is a logical extension of their successful efforts to mobilize opposition to the apartheid regime in Pretoria and the military dictatorship in Port-au-Prince. But these successes were only partly due to the gross oppression in South Africa and Haiti. Equally important were the extensive society-to-society contacts that linked many Americans to the two countries and the direct ways in which events in them affected American lives.

In the long run, the success or failure of U.S. actions to democratize Nigeria's government will depend on both the reactions of dictator Gen. Sani Abacha and the ability of the Nigerian sanctions movement to build connections between Americans and Nigerians like those that developed in the cases of South Africa and Haiti. By any standard, the military rulers in Nigeria are as undemocratic, brutal and corrupt as the old regimes in Pretoria and Port-Au-Prince. Except for a brief and flawed democratic interlude in the early 1980s, Nigeria has been ruled by its military for three decades. Nevertheless, throughout most of this period, the country had a remarkably open civil society. In the 1990s, however, Abacha and his predecessor, Ibrahim Babangida, have gone to great lengths to quash political opposition and crush what had been a free press.

A turning point occurred in June, 1993, when Babangida annulled a long-delayed presidential election after it was apparently won by a prominent businessman, Chief Moshood K.O. Abiola. Five months later, Abacha seized power, and Nigeria's descent into political and civil repression, venality, drug trafficking and economic chaos accelerated.

Despite this ugly picture, it is going to be difficult, at least in short term, to rally Americans behind a campaign to impose oil sanctions--the only economic punishment that would cripple the Abacha regime--on Nigeria. The experiences in Haiti and South Africa show why.

In the case of Haiti, a critical source of pressure on Washington was the flow of Haitian boat people into Florida. Without that, it is doubtful that President Bill Clinton would have taken decisive action. Conditions in Nigeria, however brutalizing, are unlikely to result in a similar flow of refugees to the United States.

The more telling comparison is with South Africa. The anti-apartheid movement succeeded in the mid-1980s for a mix of reasons, most of which do not yet apply in Nigeria.

Ironically, the South African sanctions movement was fueled, in part, by public outrage over the Reagan Administration's perceived support for white rule. Many members of Congress ultimately went along with sanctions because they felt it was necessary to distance themselves from the President's policy of constructive engagement. With respect to Nigeria, the Clinton Administration has already put in place a wide range of restrictions on relations with the Abacha regime. In fact, the only governments treated with greater disrespect by Washington are Cuba, Iraq, Iran and Libya.

The sanctions that ultimately hurt South Africa, furthermore, were those imposed by state and local governments, which forced U.S. companies to choose between doing business in South Africa or in California and New York. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of the South African case was that the decisions made by U.S. companies, in the 1960s and early '70s, to invest in South Africa, despite the appeals of the then-weak anti-apartheid movement to stay out, created the economic targets necessary to discipline Pretoria in the mid-'80s. By contrast, the only major U.S. businesses in Nigeria are the oil companies, which are effectively insulated from the kinds of punishments that state and local leaders can administer.

In addition, Nigeria has benefited from African Americans' reluctance to criticize black African governments. True, this is changing, due, in large part, to TransAfrica's Robinson, who has lambasted racial double standards. But a lot of work has yet to be done before African Americans are as united against Abacha as they were against apartheid.

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