and KARL MAIER
Ignoring appeals from around the world, Nigeria's military regime yesterday hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa, the author and playwright, and eight other activists in the south-eastern city of Port Harcourt.
The state-owned News Agency of Nigeria reported that all nine men had been executed at around 10.30am British time. "It is all over," said Saro-Wiwa's wife, Hauwa.
Hundreds of people lined the streets in anticipation of the executions and wept uncontrollably when prison officials came out with the corpses of the men four hours later. They were buried at the city cemetery.
The prison was heavily guarded by anti-riot police, backed up by tanks. Soldiers were also posted in two southern states, and at major oil refineries around Nigeria.
The executions caused international outrage. Britain recalled Thorold Masefield, the High Commissioner in Lagos, for "urgent consultations", while President Bill Clinton withdrew the US ambassador and halted military sales to the country. But the Commonwealth heads of government summit in New Zealand was thrown into disarray. Coming as the Commonwealth leaders were about to depart for their informal weekend "retreat", the news left them exposed to accusations that they had not done enough to put pressure on the Nigerian regime.
Before departing for the retreat, John Major said Saro-Wiwa's case was "a fraudulent trial, followed by judicial murder" - and called, in effect, for Nigeria to be expelled from the Commonwealth. This, he said, was an "acid test" for the Commonwealth, and its stand on human rights. "I do not see how Nigeria can stay in the Commonwealth, until they return to democratic government."
President Nelson Mandela also condemned the "heinous act", and said South Africa would recommend the expulsion of Nigeria from the Commonwealth and other international bodies, "pending the installation of a democratic government". In response to criticism of his previous softly-softly tactics, Mr Mandela said: "I think I've handled this correctly. I have no regrets at all."
The White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, said President Clinton had directed the US ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, to begin consultations immediately on appropriate UN measures to condemn the executions.
A senior White House official said an oil embargo was not under consideration - the US is the main market for Nigerian exports - but it was possible Ms Albright would seek support for measures "which could affect their oil industry". He declined to be specific, but indicated this could include restricting oil equipment exports to Nigeria. Mr Clinton also extended a ban on issuing visas to senior Nigerian government officials and military officers.
There was an angry exchange at the UN Security Council, after the British ambassador, Sir John Weston, broke the news, bringing condemnation from other members. Nigeria's delegate, Isaac Ayewah, accused "certain members of the council led by the British delegation" of meddling in the country's internal affairs and "ascribing to themselves the role of the world's policemen".
Yesterday the World Bank pulled out of a large oil and gas project involving the Nigerian government and Shell, the largest oil multinational operating in the country, in a move understood to be a response to the executions. Shell expressed its ''deep regret'' at the hangings.
Execution was a fate that Saro-Wiwa repeatedly declared he was prepared to face. "Nor imprisonment nor death can stop our ultimate victory," he said in his 40-page defence statement to the military-appointed tribunal which found him guilty of inciting murder.
Saro-Wiwa, 54, had been a major irritant who attracted international support in his campaign against the exploitation of Ogoniland, a 400-square-mile area in the Niger river delta, by the military and Shell. After many arrests and detentions, Saro-Wiwa was jailed in connection with the May 1994 murders of four Ogoni chiefs who opposed the more confrontational tactics of his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop).
Leading article, reports, page 3
Obituary, page 20