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Leading article: Our responsibility towards Nigeria

AFTER YEARS of Britain shirking its responsibilities towards Nigeria, let us welcome good news all round. The heart attack suffered by the dreadful dictator General Abacha two weeks ago offers a glimmer of hope. Tony Blair has seized the moment by getting on the telephone to the military boss left minding the shop (temporarily, we hope), General Abdulsalam Abubakar, on Tuesday and despatching junior minister Tony Lloyd to Lagos today. It is the right moment to exert leverage, just as the world is enjoying the spectacle of Nigeria's football team in France.

Britain's ties with its former colony do not have as much purchase as they once did, but as Nigeria sank ever deeper into despotism and corruption, the chance to use what little hold we had was never fully pressed home. The sanctions imposed on Nigeria always fell short of affecting the one commodity which actually mattered, namely oil, while Nigeria's knuckle- rapping "suspension" from the Commonwealth was never turned into full- blooded expulsion.

The arguments over sanctions are always difficult, because corrupt, rich elites tend not to suffer from them. And Nigeria has in recent years been ruled by one of the most corrupt, rich elites in the world, impervious to the plight of their country's ordinary people. But, while Abacha was around, the British government should have been at the forefront of attempts to increase the Nigerian regime's isolation - perhaps by such symbolic measures as excluding the Nigerian team from the Olympic Games and the World Cup.

Now, however, Nigeria has a chance to fulfil its potential as one of the leading powers of Africa, being blessed with natural resources and a rich history. Britain must do all it can to help the country towards this goal and to make up for lost time: Mr Lloyd carries a heavy responsibility on his shoulders today.