Ex-UK leaders urge Nigeria to 'heal wounds'

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Baroness Thatcher, James Callaghan and Edward Heath yesterday appealed to the Nigerian military ruler, General Sani Abacha, to release ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo and to show clemency to the 39 other prisoners convicted by a secret military tribunal of attempting to overthrow the government.

Saying that "Nigeria is at a watershed", the three former prime ministers sent the appeal by fax directly to General Abacha's office in the capital, Abuja. The former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt associated himself with the document.

They criticised the secret military tribunal which on 14 July handed down the convictions and sentences for the 40 prisoners. At least 14 of the detainees are reported to have been sentenced to death, while Mr Obasanjo was believed to have received a life sentence.

"Secret trials conducted without due process of law send the wrong signals to the world about your intentions for Nigeria," they said. "We appeal to you to show statesmanship at this critical time. This is a time to heal wounds and build Nigeria's future."

This latest appeal came a day after the military authorities summoned the British High Commissioner, Thorold Masefield, and the US ambassador, Walter Carrington, to Abuja to issue a protest over what they described as hostile activities, including the harbouring of dissidents and campaigning against efforts by the Abacha government to promote peace in Nigeria.

"Nigeria expressed indignation in the strongest terms at these ongoing hostile activities, and warned that the cordial relations which have hitherto existed between Nigeria and the two countries could be seriously jeopardised by their continuation," Tom Ikimi, the Foreign Minister, said.

The protest note marked a further diplomatic isolation of Nigeria since General Abacha's predecessor, General Ibrahim Babangida, cancelled the results of presidential elections in June 1993 which were widely believed to have been won by Chief Moshood Abiola, a millionaire businessman who has been jailed for the past year.

The Nigerian protest followed a warning delivered on 17 July by Dan Etete, the Oil Minister, to the executives of Shell and British Petroleum that continued criticism by the British Government could jeopardise the companies' operations in Nigeria.