An air force flight-lieutenant was out shopping with his wife in Ikeja, a suburb of Lagos, when he got into a discussion with other shoppers about the hanging of Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa, the writer and Ogoni minority- rights activist. The officer saw nothing wrong with the execution, nor was he impressed by the international outcry it had generated.
The other shoppers engaged him in a shouting match. He decided to leave for home but was trailed by men who sprang on him and forced him into the boot of a car, leaving his wife stranded. He was dumped the next morning a few yards from his home, bleeding profusely and in severe shock.
The hanging of Saro-Wiwa has dramatised the most obvious division in Nigeria today - which is not tribal, religious or regional, but a split between those in uniform and those who are not.
The alienation of the military from the civilian population entered an acute phase in June 1993 when General Ibrahim Babangida annulled an election viewed as the freest and fairest in Nigeria's history. It grew worse with the rise to power of General Sani Abacha on 17 November 1993, ostensibly to save the nation from disintegration, in fact to resolve an unnecessary crisis engineered by Nigeria's power-hungry generals.
But the killing of Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists, after appeals from home and abroad for clemency, has split the ruling military circle itself. Some senior officers said the uproar over the hanging showed the government cannot act indefinitely in contravention to the norms of civilised societies. They said it was a clear sign the military ought not to remain in government much longer.
For the moment, these voices are drowned by a chorus ofchubby-cheeked soldiers drawn by the power and perquisites of a government accountable only to itself. Most such officers do not accept a problem exists in Nigeria and care little about the application of justice and mercy towards those, like Saro-Wiwa, who are perceived as enemies of the state.
Not all members of the Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) went along with the decision to hurry Saro-Wiwa and the others to their deaths. A few argued against the sentences on the grounds that the Ogonis already nursed feelings of persecution and the international community would be offended. They said the country could not afford more bloodshed. But, they were outnumbered by hawkish members of the council.
A similar plea in the case of the former head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo, and 40 others accused of plotting the overthrow of the Abacha regime, was upheld. As in Saro-Wiwa's case, there was a campaign for clemency from the international community.
That gesture, according togovernment officials, was partly responsible for the regime's intransigence this time around. The government did not wish to be categorised as weak and not in control. There had been a groundswell of opinion among junior officers who believedObasanjo and other alleged coup-plotters should have been shot. They were still smarting from their rebuff when the Saro-Wiwa trial came along. A majority on the PRC felt it must take a hard line this time, or alienate the middle ranks of the military.
But the virulence and speed of the international community's reaction shocked the regime. While some officials issued threats against the Commonwealth for suspending Nigeria, and against the West for withdrawing its envoys, General Abacha's spokesman issued a mild statement that expressed only sadness, and which said the governmentwould announce its position in due course. The statement, acknowledged as the regime's authentic position, confirmed official hints that the government had been sobered by the worldwide backlash.
The government's worries have been compounded by the fact that it has inadvertently reunited Nigeria's disorganised opposition. It has also widened the gap between the majority tribes in the country and the minority groups which produce most of Nigeria's oil.
"When the coup plotters, who came from the majority tribes, were convicted, pleas for their sentences to be commuted were promptly heeded," a minority rights activist said. "But now they have damned everyone and hanged minority- rights campaigners. Who says this nation is one?"
Although the government is in a state of shock, it is looking for escape routes. One is expected to be an announcement of the start of the transition to civilian rule, which General Abacha announced on 1 October. Since then nothing has been done and few people believe it will come to anything.
If they are wrong, credit will go in part to Saro-Wiwa. In death he has put the regime under greater pressure than at any other time in its history.
Bature Thompson is the pseudonym of a senior Nigerian journalist.Reuse content