Defiant Nigeria invites clash on death sentences

Commonwealth summit: British policy at the centre of controversy
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The Independent Online


Defying last-minute clemency pleas here, Nigeria's military regime yesterday put itself on a collision course with the Commonwealth by confirming death sentences on the playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists.

The decision is likely to lead to renewed calls to suspend Nigeria from the Commonwealth when the heads of government begin their conference today.

Ken Wiwa, the playwright's son, who is in New Zealand to publicise his father's plight, said the Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, had promised during a meeting that he would raise the case at the summit. Mr Wiwa, said he was astonished at the "softly-softly" approach taken by foreign governments towards Nigeria."It's been clear for a long time that they are using this issue as a deliberate challenge, or to cock a snook at international opinion," he said.

The death sentences arise from the murders of four pro-government leaders in Ogoniland, a volatile oil-producing region of south-east Nigeria where Mr Saro-Wiwa and the other accused were campaigning for minority rights. Human rights groups say there were irregularities during their trial.

In interviews with the Independent, both Mr Wiwa and the Nobel Prize- winning Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka, attacked Britain for its failure to speak up. "I gave up on the British early on. They're pursuing an accommodation with Abacha [Nigeria's military leader] - and looking for excuses to do nothing," said Mr Soyinka, who arrived in Auckland yesterday just before John Major. He accused the British government of hypocrisy over its softly-softly response to abuses of human rights by the Nigerian regime: "Britain claims to believe in democracy. In that case it should live by its declared beliefs." John Major today said the death sentences were unjust and called on the Nigerian government to show clemency.

According to Mr Soyinka there are three reasons for British restraint: "Business, business, business." But he believed that "Britain can be shamed into action."

Of General Sani Abacha and his military regime, he warned: "This demented despot will continue to throw more poisoned bait at us." Nobody should be "seduced into forgetting" the lack of legitimacy of the regime.

General Abacha was ready to "kill, torture and humiliate", he said. "Appeasement went out of business with Neville Chamberlain. You do not compromise with evil."

Britain is not the only country which seems eager to soft-pedal on Nigeria. President Nelson Mandela has also avoided outspoken criticism of the Nigerian regime.

Mr Soyinka suggested that Mr Mandela was misguided in failing to criticise a "brother African government". He acknowledged the gratitude felt by South Africa's new leaders for the part Nigeria played in the battle against apartheid.

But he warned Mr Mandela against "expressing gratitude through silence over criminality". Mr Soyinka argued: "Our [Nigerian] sympathies were directed towards the South African people. We demand the same."