John Major has made a direct appeal to the Nigerian military government to exercise clemency towards 40 people sentenced to death or long jail terms on charges of plotting a coup, British officials said yesterday.
The Prime Minister's move came as an influential Commonwealth group called for sanctions on Nigeria if its military junta maintains its grip on power and continues to abuse human rights.
The fate of the alleged plotters is likely to be an awkward issue for Britain at the November summit of Commonwealth leaders in New Zealand. Several states want to push for economic sanctions, which could damage British commercial interests. Mr Major's appeal was made at a private meeting in Downing Street on Thursday with Chief Ernest Shonekan, an envoy of the Nigerian military ruler, General Sami Abacha.
British officials said the Prime Minister agreed to see Chief Shonekan after General Abacha telephoned him to ask for the meeting. "He took the opportunity to press strongly for clemency for the convicted persons," a spokesman said.
The decision was criticised by Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, Tony Lloyd. "It's pure stupidity that the Prime Minister is actually meeting an emissary of this regime the day before a Commonwealth report confirming that the country is on the brink of civil war is published," Mr Lloyd said.
The report by the non-governmental Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative said sanctions should be imposed on Nigeria, including an embargo on its oil exports, unless the military regime began a transition to democracy.
General Abacha has promised a statement on 1 October to outline a schedule for the restoration of civilian rule. But the report said Nigerian democrats feared the regime would cling to power. It warned that General Abacha's proposed changes would be inadequate and the opposition would boycott election held under these provisions.
The general seized power on 17 November 1993 after presidential elections were annulled.