No more 'quiet diplomacy', it's time to speak our minds Nigerian dictators

The thugs who killed Saro-Wiwa must be sent a message, writes Richard Dowden

THEY all got it wrong. The British Foreign Office, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth and, perhaps most important, the South Africans. They thought "quiet diplomacy" would save Ken Saro-Wiwa from the gallows. They thought he was a hostage to deflect criticism of continued military rule in Nigeria. They didn't believe the Nigerian government would be stupid enough to hang him.

The common view of the diplomats was that General Abacha was threatening to hang Mr Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues as a way of drawing the fire of the Commonwealth meeting. As long as they were begging for clemency, the leaders could not be demanding a return to civilian rule in Nigeria. The analysis was wrong.

It now seems likely that the timing of the hangings was unrelated to the Commonwealth meeting. General Sani Abacha and his band of military thugs probably didn't even see the connection, and if they did, they probably didn't care.

This is not just a case of diplomats failing to get the message across. It is a failure of the quiet diplomacy so favoured by the Foreign Office towards bad governments which don't threaten British interests. And in some cases British diplomacy in Nigeria was quieter than quiet. The crucial period in Nigerian politics this year was September, when General Abacha was deciding how much longer he could afford to stay in power. He had promised a definitive statement on his long-term plans on 1 October. Where was the British High Commissioner, Thorold Masefield, in that period? On holiday. When General Abacha announced he was staying on for three more years, the Foreign Office declared it "disappointing".

Equally pusillanimous was the response of the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, himself a Nigerian and the architect of the Harare Declaration of 1991 which committed Commonwealth governments to democratic and accountable government. He expressed "concern".

A nice man, always willing to see the best in people, Chief Anyaoku now admits in private he was deceived by Abacha's predecessor, General Ibrahim Babangida, who held an election in 1993 and then cancelled it. Babangida lied to him, he said. But should he have been willing to give Abacha, a far more brutal soldier than Babangida, a chance?

A Commonwealth team which visited Nigeria in July this year recommended that Nigeria should be suspended from Commonwealth membership, yet as late as last week Chief Anyaoku would not even say whether or not suspension - let alone expulsion - was on a list of options for Commonwealth policy on Nigeria. He wanted dialogue.

He may have been influenced by the South Africans. Thabo Mbeki, the Vice President, visited Abuja in July to plead for the lives of a group of people convicted of plotting an alleged coup. He came away accusing Western countries of trying to bully Nigeria and saying that it was up to Africa to draw up its own agenda and not be pushed around by Western countries. "Now we are engaged with that military regime and the solution of that particular problem [the death sentences] becomes South Africa's first substantial point of contact with the continent's most populous nation."

Mr Mbeki did not seem to see the irony in the fact that during the apartheid years he led the attack on American "constructive engagement" with the apartheid regime and continually demanded its isolation and sanctions. One of his strongest allies and helpers in this cause was the former Nigerian head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo, now imprisoned by Abacha.

It was probably Mr Mbeki's soft approach which led the Foreign Office to override Baroness Chalker's call in September to keep Nigeria away from Auckland. Perhaps, the argument went, if Abacha was lured to Auckland, he could then be ambushed and told clearly to release the alleged coup plotters and return the country to civilian rule. But there was never any chance that Abacha would leave Nigeria. He sent his ineffective and powerless foreign minister, Tom Ikimi, to take the heat.

Can more be done by the international community? Foreign investment in Nigeria's huge oil industry is crucial; US investment stands at pounds 2.6bn and British investment at pounds 3.4bn. There is little chance of economic sanctions until there is a clear threat to the long-term safety of those investments. And there is no guarantee that sanctions would make Abacha come out with his hands up.

But there are many other things which can be done to get the message home. The first is to end quiet diplomacy and spell out publicly what Britain expects of Nigeria's military rulers. Britain could also offer public support for the democratic opposition in Nigeria. The "judicial murder" of Mr Saro-Wiwa should at the very least blow away the Home Office's immigration policy for Nigeria, which suggests it is a "safe country" and Britain should not give political asylum to its dissidents.

And then there are the private European bank accounts of Nigeria's rulers. Since much of the money in them is stolen or obtained corruptly, there is a prima facie case for freezing them and investigating them. Parting the generals from their "pensions" would send the strongest message of all.

n Richard Dowden is on the foreign staff of 'The Economist'

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin