Hurd rounds on Nigeria over ex-president's plight

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The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, attacked the "growing cruelty" of Nigeria's military rulers yesterday and urged them to show restraint in the treatment of political prisoners.

He was particularly disturbed by reports that Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president, and 23 others were being tried in secret on charges of plotting to overthrow the Nigerian leader, General Sani Abacha.

Describing General Obasanjo as a man of integrity, Mr Hurd said Nigeria was "slipping downhill".

He welcomed General Abacha's Tuesday announcement that he was lifting a ban on political parties and preparing a timetable for handing over to a democratically elected government on 1 October, but gave no news of General Obasanjo.

Whatever the supposed offence, General Abacha lacks the credentials to try his predecessor, who did more to keep Nigeria unified than any other leader, and was the only military ruler to hand the country back to an elected civilian government.

General Obasanjo was trained at Mons as an army engineer, but became one of the most effective federal battlefield commanders during the civil war to put down Biafra.

The post-war administration gradually sank into corruption and nepotism and, when it was overthrown in 1975, General Obasanjo became chief of staff to the impatient northerner, Brigadier Murtala Mohammed.

He had not been part of the inner circle of plotters, but was trusted by the northerners, officers like himself who had seen enough violence during 30 months of front-line service and believed Nigeria should set an example for the rest of Africa.

His appointment was important. In a country perpetually preoccupied by tribal and religious jealousies, he was the guarantor of the future for the Yorubas of the south, and thus for national unity.

Within a year Mohammed had been assassinated and General Obasanjo became head of state - he never called himself president.

Many in the north saw the arrival of a southern leader after an assassination as a plot, but ruling northern officers understood the real danger of violence in the south and gave General Obasanjo their support. He implemented the points of his predecessor's political programme and returned the country to civilian government on schedule three years later.

He retired to a chicken farm, an example in agricultural self- sufficiency. But he found time to be a mediator for the UN in Namibia and to join a group of "wise men" advising the Security Council. Many former military government members bought homes abroad; General Obasanjo stayed on his farm, making him an easy target for Nigeria's new military rulers.