Executions fuel fears of 'cauldron of anarchy'

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The Independent Online

The execution of the Ogoni rights leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, has doused the last embers of hope that peaceful pressure could sway General Sani Abacha to return Nigeria to civilian rule and thrown Africa's most populous country into even deeper political crisis.

Many observers fear that the execution by hanging of Mr Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists will accelerate the collapse of a potentially wealthy nation into a cauldron of violence and anarchy unprecedented in post-colonial Africa.

The urbane, pipe-smoking Mr Saro-Wiwa, a man always quick with a retort, was the complete opposite of the man who ultimately approved his execution. But the reclusive Gen Abacha, who was too frightened to venture out of his presidential palace in the capital of Abuja to attend the Commonwealth Summit, has been nothing if not thorough.

Since he came to power in November 1993, his military government has jailed the man who won arguably the country's freest-ever elections in 1992, Chief Moshood Abiola; the only general to hand over power to an elected civilian government, Olusegun Obasanjo; the leader of the pro- democracy movement, Beko Ransome-Kuti; and perhaps the most powerful politician in the Muslim-dominated north, former general Shehu Musa Yar'Adua.

Senior members of the armed forces have been arrested for plotting coups. Human rights groups have been raided, harassed and their leaders arrested, trade unions have been effectively closed down, and the judicial system has been marginalised by presidential decrees. The trial of Mr Saro-Wiwa was conducted by a special tribunal, which included a military officer and granted no right of appeal.

Mr Saro-Wiwa's death has intensified the international spotlight on a military that has become a predator on the nation's 90 million people. The former presidential candidate Maitama Sule has dubbed the soldiers/politicians "militicians".

Their domination of power for most of Nigeria's 35 years of independence has transformed the military into an armed political movement, presided over by a clique of officers who have used the country's treasure of natural resources - Nigeria produces more than 2 million barrels of day of oil - as their personal bank. A government commission reported last year that during the 1985-1993 reign of Gen Abacha's predecessor, Gen Ibrahim Babangida, $12bn in oil revenues could not be accounted for.

"The military used to have some mystique, but everybody now realises that they are just armed robbers in uniform," Suleimanu Kumo, a lawyer in the northern city of Kano, said recently. "They are doing it openly, brazenly."

By attacking the behaviour of the government and the oil industry in Ogoniland, Mr Saro-Wiwa was striking at the heart of the military's grip on power. After a quarter of a century of exporting oil worth more than $200bn, Nigerians enjoy a per capita income of about $300, unchanged from pre-oil days.

The poverty and pollution which Mr Saro-Wiwa campaigned against in Ogoniland on the Niger delta is repeated throughout the country. Nigeria's once prestigious universities are shells of their former selves, wracked by shortages of everything from books, electricity and water to a devastating brain drain of lecturers to Europe, the United States, and the rest of Africa.

Mr Saro-Wiwa thought the military was leading Nigeria to ruin and feared much of Africa would go with it. "We all stand on trial, my lord, for by our actions we have denigrated our own country and jeopardised the future of our children," he said in his defence to the tribunal.

The political impasse since the military annulled the 12 June 1993 elections has fostered the worst ethnic and regional tensions since the Igbos of the east tried to break away and sparked the 1967-70 Biafra war.

Mr Ransome-Kuti said before he was arrested in July: "The people are so desperate, and if people want to get guns, they will find them. I never could imagine thinking about guns, but the stage we are at now, I don't know."