Generals move to the offensive

Tyranny in Nigeria: Abacha junta tries desperately to limit damage caused by hanging of Saro-Wiwa
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The Independent Online


As pressure mounts for tougher measures against Nigeria, it appears the country's dictator, General Sani Abacha, is searching desperately for a damage- limitation programme.

He apparently did not foresee the international opprobrium which followed the executions of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other minority-rights activists two weeks ago. The cabinet, which had met only three times in the past year, convened in emergency session for two days running this week to devise a strategy in response to the outbursts of international outrage over the hangings. A 33-member National Committee of Traditional Rulers and Leaders of Thought has been assembled to advise the cabinet in the face of Nigeria's growing isolation.

If General Abacha misjudged international opinion, it is also true the world failed to understand him. Diplomats here - those who remain since more than 30 were withdrawn in protest over the executions - are asking themselves what it is that impels such a regime to behave as it does. It had become obvious long before the executions that Nigeria's rulers are not motivated by the concerns of ordinary politicians. Having ousted a four-month-old civilian government - the only one in 12 years of otherwise uninterrupted military rule - General Abacha demolished all democratic institutions. Hundreds of opponents of the government have been detained under military decree.

This is a regime that does not believe in the rule of law. Those who stand in General Abacha's way are regarded as enemies and dealt with summarily. This is not a government which entertains notions of public accountability. He has never held a news conference and has granted only a single interview. His speeches and public appearances are rare; he remains largely inscrutable, receiving visitors late at night or in the early hours of the morning.

"His fellow officers fear rather than respect him," says a newspaper editor. "He is very strong-willed and has deadly instincts. He is ruthless, ready to stake his life on what he is doing. There is little chance of a coup to oust him, because he is so powerful and has such a firm grip on the nation's security apparatus. He's a good infantry man, very strong on tactics."

The longest-serving high-ranking officer in the current regime, General Abacha received his military training in Britain in the Sixties and Seventies. He became Chief of Army Staff in 1985 and later Minister of Defence. He played a brisk game of double-dealing during the short-lived civilian government of 1993 before installing himself in power in November of that year.

"He obviously felt it was his turn to hold the reins and, given the mess that preceded him, many regarded him as a sort of saviour," says a diplomat. "He's clearly got no ideological position and in a sense he's got little political ambition. He's first and foremost a military man and he regards power as a reward in itself." The cynical view is that the military's aim is to line their pockets while wearing smart uniforms: certainly there are ample opportunities for top brass to secure hefty kick-backs from awarding contracts to the highest bidders.

"They're a greedy, ill-educated, useless bunch who've no idea how to run a modern country," says a diplomat. But there may be more to it than that: one editor suggests General Abacha and his cronies believe they are acting in Nigeria's best interests.

The military believe the political class is unfit to govern. Nigeria has been ruled by military juntas for 25 of the past 35 years. If their record has not been exemplary, it cannot be said civilian governments have fared much better in improving the lot of ordinary Nigerians.

Unlike civilian politicians, who are led by largely ethnic and sectional interests, the army is recruited on a broad cross-regional basis; there is a deep- rooted commitment to the preservation of the Nigerian federation. Some professionals and businessmen concede that the economy - for better- off Nigerians at least - is looking healthier since General Abacha introduced liberalising measures earlier this year.

But the competence of the military to govern, at the most basic level, is open to doubt. The country is falling apart: people are struggling to put food on their tables; crime and corruption are endemic. "There is no real organisation," says one diplomat. There is a story of one minister sacked last March who, during 15 months in government, sent only two memos to General Abacha. He received no reply to either.

The three-year period of transition to civilian rule announced on 1 October is already off the rails.

There has been no approval of a draft constitution, no electoral commission has been appointed, nor have other key committees been set up.