The winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for literature was one of many opposition figures who fled Nigeria two years ago to Europe and the United States, where they have campaigned against the military government of General Sani Abacha. The military regime annulled the Nigerian general election of 1993, thus preventing its presumed winner, the wealthy businessman Moshood Abiola, from being installed as president. Abiola was jailed in 1994, when he declared himself president, and Soyinka and other opposition figures have since then campaigned to have the annulled poll recognised.
General Abacha, who seized power in November 1993, four months after the elections, is implementing a transition plan he says will allow him to hand power to a democratically elected president in 1998.
But his critics say he intends to use the plan to retain power, and point to his bloody human rights record. General Abacha's regime executed the dissident playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other opponents in November 1995.
Charging Soyinka could pave the way for Nigeria to try to get him extradited back home. The accused dissidents face a two-count charge of "conspiracy to levy war against the federal military government of Nigeria" and "causing explosions in various parts of Nigeria."
Soyinka, who condemned the country's rulers in a 1996 book entitled The Open Sore of a Continent, said yesterday he was not surprised to be charged with treason because it was clear General Abacha wanted to "eliminate" him.
"We learned the decision to try us on treason charges had been taken before the recent violence ... The whole thing is orchestrated. Abacha is trying to get rid of us," the writer said by telephone from California.
Soyinka said he did not know who was behind the bombings, but thought the army could be responsible, as it was so divided. "Dissent in Nigeria ... will not go away until Abacha has gone. But this is a marathon, not a sprint," he said. Eight of the 12 dissidents are in Nigeria and were brought to court yesterday. The case was adjourned to 9 May.
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