Sanctions threat to Nigeria

Commonwealth acts over executions t EU punishment looms t Shell faces boycott
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The Independent Online
NIGERIA'S military government last night faced the prospect of punitive international action as the world united in outrage at the execution of the writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others.

While the Commonwealth suspended Nigeria and threatened it with expulsion if it did not swiftly move towards democracy, President Clinton ordered a halt to US military sales and threatened further action. The European Union's 15 member states decided to pull their envoys out of Lagos, and Germany demanded an early European Union meeting to prepare "additional punitive measures".

The British government, for its part, said it would act through the EU and the United Nations. John Major, the Prime Minister, said sanctions were a possibility but he would be reluctant to take action that would hurt ordinary Nigerians.

International sanctions of some sort seemed likely, although there was scepticism about the possibility of a bar on oil purchases from Nigeria, the measure which would hit General Sani Abacha's regime hardest.

In London last night, however, representatives of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Nigerian democrats met to plan a global campaign against the Shell oil company, accused of complicity with the Nigerian leadership.

Yesterday saw protests at a number of Shell stations around the country, and one at Speen, near Newbury, Berkshire was closed down when more than 30 activists waved banners and chanted.

"I've never seen such anger around the world at the treatment of a dissident," said Gavin Grant of Body Shop, a supporter of Mr Saro-Wiwa. "Shell's operations in the Niger delta were the cause of Ken's protests. It waited to the last minute to intervene, and then failed to accept he was an innocent man. It must pull out of Nigeria until democracy is restored."

Despite intense pressure for clemency, Saro-Wiwa and eight supporters were hanged on Friday after what is regarded as a sham trial on murder charges. He had incurred the wrath of the military regime during a long campaign against exploitation of his native Ogoniland by oil companies.

The hangings caused fury at the Commonwealth conference in New Zealand. A joint statement, approved by all members except the military leadership of The Gambia demanded the release of 43 leading political prisoners and notably of Chief Moshood Abiola, who is generally accepted as the winner of elections in 1993 that were swiftly annulled by the armed forces.

The statement concluded that Nigeria would be expelled if "no demonstrable progress" was made towards these goals "within a time-frame to be stipulated". Mr Major said last night that "a pretty powerful message" had been sent to Lagos.

Nigeria, potentially Africa's richest country, has been under military rule since 1983, and the generals in charge have a long history of silencing dissent, deferring or scrapping elections, and siphoning off the country's oil revenues.

Yesterday the government reacted angrily to the suspension. "We see it as most unfortunate, unfair and baseless, and it doesn't seem to approximate events and developments in Nigeria," said an official spokesman in Lagos.

Beyond the Commonwealth, outrage at the hangings continued to mount. As well as halting military sales, President Clinton placed curbs on Nigerian officials entering the US, and White House officials said a ban on the sale of oil equipment was also possible.

Mr Clinton joined calls for wider action, instructing his ambassador to the UN to begin consultations on joint measures. The Organisation of African Unity expressed its dismay, and the EU's Spanish presidency will chair a meeting on Tuesday of the top officials responsible for Africa to debate what steps to take next.

Few analysts believe, however, that the West will impose an oil embargo. Although oil accounts for more than 90 per cent of Nigeria's foreign exchange earnings, world oil markets hardly noted the news of Mr Saro-Wiwa's execution.

The US has the greatest potential leverage over Nigeria, importing 750,000 barrels per day, or 45 per cent of the country's total exports. Western Europe, mainly Spain, France, Germany and the Netherlands, accounts for almost as much.

Nigerian crude oil, known as Bonny Light, is especially coveted because it is easily refined, and an embargo could push up petrol prices sharply around the world.

Yet proponents of stiff sanctions argue that the price the international community would pay now for an oil embargo might be smaller than the eventual cost of the collapse of Nigeria into civil conflict.

Lagos and the Nigerian federal capital, Abuja, remained calm yesterday, although people in the streets expressed disbelief that the regime had carried out the executions. Soldiers and tanks were sent to Port Harcourt, where the hangings took place.

In London yesterday, protesters maintained their vigil outside the Nigerian High Commission. A message on a bunch of white lilies at the spot said: "Shame on you. You can kill the man but never the spirit."

Terry Ndee, of the 150- strong Ogoni Community Association, expressed frustration at the Commonwealth. "We think it's action too late . . . If that sort of action had been shown before the executions, it possibly could have saved these men's lives."