Nigeria warns oil firms after British criticism

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The Independent Online


Nigeria warned British Petroleum and Shell yesterday that Britain's criticism of military rule and its human rights record could jeopardise the oil companies' operations.

The warning came as the fate of 40 alleged coup plotters and Nigeria's relationship with the outside world hung in the balance as General Sani Abacha's military government prepared to decide whether to carry out sentences imposed against the detainees, including the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, by a secret tribunal.

The Nigerian Petroleum Minister, Dan Etete, issued the warning when he summoned to a meeting the heads of BP and Shell, which lift much of Nigeria's 1.9 million barrels a day in oil production. He criticised "the unfriendly posture of the British government and its general attitude" towards the government and people of Nigeria. "In as much as our doors are open to foreign investors, we will not be dictated to by anybody nor allow our sovereignty to be subjected to slavery," he told the oil executives.

Britain renewed its criticism yesterday, when the foreign office minister Jeremy Hanley, speaking at question time, said "it is difficult to see how Nigeria can play a full role in Commonwealth affairs until she puts her house in order."

Mr Hanley's statement echoed previous comments by British officials, such as Baroness Chalker, suggesting that Nigeria might not be welcome at the November Commonwealth summit in Auckland.

A team from the Commonwealth states, headed by former Canadian foreign minister, Flora MacDonald, is in Nigeria to compile a report on the human rights situation to present to that meeting.

General Abacha, who came to power in November 1993, has pledged to announce his plans to return the country to civilian rule on 1 October.

Appeals for clemency of the 40 detainees have poured in from the Pope, Western capitals, and international human rights groups as relatives and associates dispatched prominent envoys to Abuja, the capital, to beg for mercy.

Nigerian human rights groups said they feared the military regime could begin today to execute up to 14 detainees, and send the remainder, including Mr Obasanjo, to prison to serve long jail terms.

"The indications are that they could move ahead with the executions," said Beko Ransome-Kuti, the head of the Campaign for Democracy, whose northern organiser, Sani Shehu, was believed to among the convicted.

General Abacha's Provisional Ruling Council, which must confirm the convictions announced on 14 July, was expected to meet today in Abuja.

Nigeria has been in virtual crisis since June 1993, when General Abacha's predecessor, General Ibrahim Babangida, annulled presidential elections which were declared free and fair by international observers and were apparently won by Chief Moshood Abiola, a flamboyant millionaire philanthropist. Chief Abiola has been detained in Abuja for the past year after he declared himself the elected president.

The detention of Mr Obasanjo, a Commonwealth eminent person and the only Nigerian military leader to hand over power voluntarily to an elected government, has provoked the loudest international outcry.

Nigerian newspapers have reported that 14 people were sentenced to death for their alleged role in plotting a coup d'etat. They added that Mr Obasanjo and 11 others had been given life sentences