Leading Article: Nigeria: the price of timidity

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The Independent Online
Until this weekend the vast majority of readers of this newspaper - and most of its journalists - had never heard of Ogoniland. Yet this desperately poor corner of Nigeria has provided many of us with a good living for 30 years. Its oil has earned vast profits for Shell, the Anglo- Dutch oil giant, and the revenue has been spent by the Nigerian government and oligarchy in large measure on European goods.

Nice for us, wonderful for the Nigerian elite - but a tragedy for the Ogoni. Their country has been severely polluted by oil leaks, while little or nothing has been spent on improving life for this minor member of Nigeria's fractious family of 250 tribes. Small wonder that their resentment should have given rise to Ken Saro-Wiwa's campaign on behalf of the Ogoni and that this campaign - frustrated and suppressed by the military regime - should eventually have become militant, with violent results. It was always a sorry story.

Now the Ogonis have a martyr; a poet hanged in irons after a show trial. And we failed to save him. Respectable governments hoped and believed that hush-hush diplomacy and pleas behind the scenes would work; that the Nigerian government would do us all a favour and quietly commute his sentence and eventually let him out, allowing him to move to London or New York. Then we could all get on with the business of arguing with General Sani Abacha and his cronies about a return to democracy, while continuing to trade with Nigeria. This strategy now lies in ruins.

So arguments have begun again about the efficacy of sanctions (in the case of Nigeria, these would have to be oil sanctions) and the role of morality in foreign policy. In the anti-camp are those who argue that we stand to lose much of our annual pounds 600m-worth of trade with Nigeria, thereby jeopardising British jobs and livelihoods; that economic sanctions are never effective; that only the poorer Nigerians would suffer; and that international action might precipitate a Nigerian bloodbath.

It is certainly true that unless the international community stands united over oil sanctions, Britain will simply be replaced by other trade partners and any embargo will fail. However, recent history records three effective examples of the use of economic sanctions: in South Africa, Iraq and Serbia. So it can be done. It is true, as well, that poorer Nigerians will suffer but richer ones - influential with the military regime - will suffer far more.

However, the last argument is the most important. If the present military regime continues in power, then bloody chaos is inevitable. Under Abacha repression has got worse, the economy has slumped, crime and corruption have risen to levels that threaten all social cohesion; Nigeria is becoming a basket-case. The lessons of Rwanda and, indeed, the former Yugoslavia suggest that the greatest danger could come when elements in the present regime - incapable of reforming the mess they themselves have created - decide that fomenting tribal differences will help to save their own skins.

That is why we must shake off our timidity and take action. An oil embargo should start now. Whatever the appeasers say, the price of inaction is always heavy - and is always eventually paid.