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Too Early to Hug This Dictator

April 12, 1998

The Clinton administration has changed its tune ever so slightly on Nigeria. After his policymakers denounced the current president, the military dictator Sani Abacha, President Clinton has hinted that the U.S. position could soften if the general competes as a civilian in the upcoming presidential election. Abacha needs to do more to restore democracy than take off his uniform.

The general may be willing to run as a civilian in the Aug. 1 election, but he has expressed no willingness to act like a civilian. He refuses to release political prisoners, including Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of the 1993 election. Abacha also refuses to allow dissent and permit a free and critical press. And he cannot undo the death of human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa or the other innocents executed by his corrupt regime.

Abacha rules one of the continent's most powerful nations. Oil-rich and populous, Nigeria flexes its muscle throughout West Africa. Nigerian soldiers, serving in a highly touted regional peacekeeping force, threw out a junta and restored democracy in Sierra Leone earlier this year and also helped to restore peace to Liberia after a lengthy and wrenching civil war. The Nigerian participation, extensive and expensive, provided a welcome African solution to an African problem and prompted international praise. But the general has shown no willingness to shore up democracy at home.

If Abacha were to manage the conversion from a dictator reigning by terror to a civilian president who won office fairly, he would not be the first African head of state to come to power by force then go on to win a democratic election. In Ghana, President Jerry Rawlings ruled as a general before he was elected president. In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni also came to power by armed might before he won the presidency. Both Ghana and Uganda are doing better politically and economically than Nigeria, so perhaps Abacha will take note. So far, he has shown no sign of changing.

Abacha certainly isn't popular in Nigeria today. Gasoline is scarce in one of the world's largest oil-producing nations. The economy is in ruins. Poverty is spreading. Crime is rampant, and there is only fading hope of getting rid of the leader who has done so much damage.

Washington can't ignore Abacha, but any hint of an embrace is exceedingly premature.

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