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Trade trip to Nigeria backed by Whitehall

The British government is sponsoring businessmen to go to Nigeria in order to drum up trade just as Nigerian opposition groups are issuing a concerted call for sanctions against the Nigerian military regime.

When General Sani Abacha's government last month hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others, on what were generally regarded as trumped-up charges, Nigeria was condemned worldwide. It was promptly suspended from the Commonwealth and John Major, who was attending the Commonwealth summit in Auckland, talked of "judicial murder". Nigeria, it was suggested, would be a pariah.

Now, however, the Department of Trade and Industry is preparing to subsidise a sponsored trip to Nigeria in two months' time.

Philip Oppenheim, a minister at the department, noted recently: "My department has scaled down the level of promotional activity in recent years." None the less, next year's trip, planned for February under the auspices of the London Chamber of Commerce, promises "appropriate high-level PR and press coverage" - perhaps a dubious attraction in the circumstances.

When first asked about government policy, a DTI spokesman insisted that companies receive "no financial support", in terms of the encouragement to do deals. In reality, money is still freely available. Originally, applications for government funds had to be in by 20 October - before Saro-Wiwa's execution and the international uproar that followed. The deadline has now been indefinitely extended.

Organisers admitted yesterday: "We fully expected them [the DTI] to cancel." But Olaokun Soyinka, co-ordinator of a Nigerian pro-democracy umbrella group in London, said he was not surprised to hear that the trip was going ahead. "It's all bluster. Underneath, it's business as usual."

n Lagos (Reuter) - Salim Ahmed Salim, secretary-general of the Organisation of African Unity, gave a boost to the military regime when he said he opposed any move to isolate Nigeria despite some reservations over the country's human rights record. "I could say as secretary-general of the OAU that we do not subscribe to the campaign to isolate Nigeria," Mr Salim said after meeting General Abacha in the capital, Abuja. "We would not want anything to be done which would have the effect of destabilising Nigeria."