Chorus of criticism rattles Abacha

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The Independent Online
KARL MAIER

Lagos

and MARY FAGAN

London

Two former Nigerian prime ministers, Muhammad Buhari and Ernest Shonekan, were yesterday reported to have added their voices to the chorus condemning the secret trial of 40 opposition figures in Nigeria.

World leaders, ranging from the South African President, Nelson Mandela, to the Pope, have appealed to Nigeria's military leader, General Sani Abacha, to show clemency to the former president Olusegun Obasanjo and 39 other alleged coup plotters.

"Countries throughout the Commonwealth are anxious that developments in Nigeria should be arrested before they plunge the country into a worse crisis," Chief Emeka Anyaoku, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, said yesterday.

However, similar concern was expressed for the lives of alleged coup plotters in both 1985 and 1990 to no avail. Since 1976, at least 115 people, the majority of them soldiers, have been executed for plotting to overthrow the government.

The final decision on the fate of the 40 detainees rests with the Provisional Ruling Council of General Abacha, who seized power in November 1993 in the wake of the annulment of presidential elections the previous June by his predecessor, General Ibrahim Babangida. The PRC was expected to meet later this week to confirm the convictions by a secret military tribunal.

A presidential spokesman said that the government would consider the calls for clemency. "This administration is a very responsive and responsible one," said David Attah, General Abacha's press secretary. "It is not insensitive to appeals."

But the rising international condemnation of the secret tribunal which convicted Obasanjo and the other alleged coup plotters, and military rule in general has clearly irked the Nigerian authorities.

Irritation with what the military government regards as outside interference was evident on Monday when Dan Etete, the Petroleum Resources Minister, summoned executives of two leading oil companies, Shell and British Petroleum, to say that Nigeria "will no longer tolerate any further personal attack on the head of state, General Sani Abacha, or on the Nigerian government by the British government".

The announcement echoed an editorial which appeared last week in the pro-government New Nigerian newspaper suggesting that economic sanctions should be applied against Britain, whose exports to Nigeria totalled pounds 457m last year.

Yet Mr Etete's strong words appeared to catch Western business executives and diplomats by surprise, especially because Shell, which lifts more than half of Nigeria's 1.9 million barrels per day of oil production, is central to the government's plans to develop a multi-billion pound liquified natural gas project.

Shell produces 900,000 barrels a day through a joint venture with Nigeria's National Petroleum Company, Elf Aquitaine of France and Agip of Italy. Shell has 30 per cent of the venture but is also the operator.

A Shell spokesman said it understands that the government's wrath is not directed at the oil industry. "It is not our problem really. The difficulty is that this is a matter for the governments. The nature of the issues at stake are quite obviously political and there is very little scope for us to take any action at all."

He added that the Shell group of companies has in any case a policy of not becoming involved in politics or of making political donations. "Obviously the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria does hope that the two government's can resolve the issues between them speedily and amicably," he said.

BP declined to comment on the issue. The company is much less exposed than Shell, having an interest in four offshore blocks which are operated by Statoil of Norway.

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