Nigeria rulers consider mercy for 'plotters'

TUNDE OBADINA

of Reuters

Lagos - Nigeria's ruling generals began a meeting yesterday to review sentences passed against 40 people found guilty of plotting a coup against the military government. The generals will take into account the flood of local and foreign appeals for mercy, the head of state's spokesman said.

The National Defence Council, made up of senior military officials, were gathered at the presidential villa in the capital Abuja under the chairmanship of military ruler General Sani Abacha.

Their decision will go to the governing Provisional Ruling Council, which has the final word on the soldiers and civilians convicted in a secret trial of trying to topple the government in March.

"This administration in its entirety is a very responsible one. If this is the world's opinion, it cannot be ignored," said Gen Abacha's chief press secretary, David Attah. "Judging by the mood of the nation and the past record of the administration there is reason to believe that justice will be tempered by mercy."

Among those whose fate is in the generals' hands are a former head of state, retired General Olusegun Obasanjo, and his deputy, Major-General Shehu Musa Yar'Adua.

The authorities have not made public the sentences but newspapers say Gen Obasanjo was given a life jail term and Gen Yar'Adua and 13 others were sentenced to death.

The sentencing after the secret trial that began on 5 June has drawn myriad clemency appeals from local and international human rights groups and world leaders. Mr Attah cautioned that the outcome of the review could not be easily predicted.

It was not clear when the Provisional Ruling Council, also chaired by Gen Abacha, would meet but one newspaper said it could be today. The trial was condemned by several Western nations who are also putting pressure on Gen Abacha to return Nigeria to democracy.

"If government is going to change it is not because of the threats but the appeals of people from all over the world. And I think that is what the government is going to buy," said the Defence Ministry spokesman, Brigadier-General Fred Chijuka.

Nigeria has been in turmoil since the army annulled an election in 1993 supposed to restore democracy, an action that led Western nations to impose token sanctions. Moshood Abiola, the businessman believed to have won the vote, is in jail accused of treason.

Gen Abacha promises to announce a programme for a return to civilian rule in his Independence Day broadcast on 1 October.

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