Mandela pleads for Nigerians

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The Independent Online
Nelson Mandela attempted yesterday to apply moral persuasion to the seemingly intractable crisis in Nigeria but his magic touch could meet its match in the country's military rulers.

Deputy President Thabo Mbeki flew into the Nigerian capital, Abuja, yesterday with a message from Mr Mandela, which urged General Sani Abacha's military government to show clemency towards Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president, and 39 other prisoners convicted by a secret military tribunal last week on charges of plotting a coup d'etat.

Calls by former and current world leaders, ranging from Margaret Thatcher to US President Bill Clinton, have failed to move the military government, although Gen Abacha's Provisional Ruling Council has not yet met to confirm the sentences.

At least 14 of the prisoners were reported to be facing the death penalty and local newspapers have said the former president, a major supporter of the international anti-apartheid campaign which helped to force Pretoria to lift the ban on Mr Mandela's African National Congress, had received a life sentence.

Beko Ransome-Kuti, leader of the Campaign for Democracy, said the intervention of Mr Mandela would make it more difficult for the military government to carry out the sentences.

There was no immediate word on how long Mr Mbeki would be staying in Abuja. "The discussions will focus on the present political situation in Nigeria and matters of common interest," his spokesman Ricky Naidoo said in Johannesburg. In October last year, Mr Mbeki played a key role in convincing the Mozambican opposition leader Afonso Dhlakama to reverse his boycott of that country's first-ever general elections.

Mr Mbeki's arrival in Nigeria followed intense diplomatic pressure on General Abacha, who came to power in November 1993, to show clemency to the alleged coup plotters and to move the country towards democratic rule.