Nigeria waits for dictator to speak

Lives of 'plotters' and the fate of democracy may hang on leader's broadcast, writes David Orr in Lagos
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Nigeria's military government is not known for openness or candour. Since he seized power in 1993, General Sani Abacha has never held a news conference and has granted only a single interview. His speeches and other public appearances are rare.

Hence the heightened expectations surrounding his planned address to the nation this Sunday. In a television and radio broadcast to coincide with the 35th anniversary of Nigerian independence from Britain, General Abacha is set to announce a long-awaited timetable for a return to civil rule. A transition period of at least two years is expected.

The most eagerly awaited news, both here and abroad, concerns the fate of Chief Moshood Abiola, widely seen as winner of the 1993 presidential election annulled by General Abacha's predecessor, General Ibrahim Babangida. Since June last year, Chief Abiola has been held in prison on charges of treason, for having proclaimed himself president in defiance of the military government.

Also at stake is the fate of 40 people convicted of having participated in a coup plot which few Nigerians believe really existed.

Among them is a former head of state, retired General Olusegun Obasanjo, who is thought to have received a life sentence. Fourteen people are believed to have been sentenced to death by the secret military tribunal.

There is speculation that the government will bow to international pressure to release Chief Abiola and commute the death sentences. But earlier this week General Abacha declared that the courts would decide his fate. He also said the alleged plotters had been legitimately tried and no amnesty should be expected.

To carry out the executions would be a slap in the face of international opinion. John Major and presidents Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela are among many world leaders who have appealed for the release of political detainees and a return to constitutional government.

There have also been calls for increased trade sanctions against Nigeria, although these have generally not included an embargo on oil exports, which account for more than 80 per cent of the country's foreign exchange earnings.

A report by a Commonwealth human rights commission recently called for Nigeria to be expelled from the Commonwealth when heads of government meet in New Zealand in November. On this subject General Abacha has remained silent and inscrutable behind his trademark dark sunglasses.

If the fate of earlier convicted coup plotters is a guide, the future of those under sentence is not bright. Since 1976 117 people, mostly servicemen, have been executed for trying to overthrow the government. As General Abacha has admitted, the executions have normally taken place before the public has been informed.

Businessmen and diplomats here believe that some concessions will be included in General Abacha's broadcast on Sunday, although the expectation is that the transition period will be a matter of years rather than months.

"Abacha might get away with a three-year transition period", a Lagos- based businessman said. "Anything longer would create real problems here and with the international community."

One of the most controversial proposals drafted by a constitutional conference convened by the government is to rotate the presidency between the Muslim north and the mostly Christian south. Although the proposal is widely regarded as unworkable, the measure might go some way towards placating the south, which has long felt marginalised by the northern establishment.

"October 1st will determine whether a healthy Nigerian child has come into the world or whether the baby is still-born", said Gani Fawehinmi, a lawyer, civil rights activist and opposition politician who has frequently run foul of the current regime. "I don't believe Abacha is planning a return to democracy. The despots of the past have been refined compared to him."

The widespread disillusion goes deeper than discontent with the government. Africa's most populous nation has been ruled by military regimes for more than 25 of 35 years since independence. A succession of dictators have promised civilian rule. The only man to have kept his pledge, General Obasanjo, is in jail.

General Abacha prefers to rule by edict and decree. He dismantled all democratic institutions before proceeding against his opponents, not just politicians but also civil rights activists and journalists. Years of repression have been compounded by the deep-seated apathy of the public, who are faced with a collapsing economy, falling living standards and rampant corruption. Since an oil sector strike last year was crushed and labour leaders imprisoned, there has been little public agitation for reform.

"All the names of credible opposition figures could now be written down here", said Bolaji Owasanoye, holding up a sheet of paper as he sat behind his desk in the Lagos University law department. "The older politicians, those who haven't been jailed or who haven't sold out, are lying low, and the younger ones are too inexperienced to mobilise the public. People are keeping quiet, trying to get on with their lives."

Mr Owasanoye's university post affords him and his family a monthly salary of under 10,000 naira, worth less than pounds 75. He admits to feelings of despair but says he would not risk taking to the streets only to be shot by the police.

Although Chief Abiola is not untainted by rumours of corruption, he remains a rallying point for the dissatisfaction of many Nigerians, particularly those in the south.

But as the last 12 years of almost constant military rule have shown, national reconciliation has not been the principal concern of Nigeria's rulers. Most of the cards remain in General Abacha's hands.