LEADING ARTICLE:Nigeria's deadly poker game

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The Independent Online
It's time to get tough with the Nigerian government. Sentencing the playwright, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and three others to death is just the latest in a long line of human rights abuses by Nigerian military rulers, not to mention the repression of democracy, repeated acts of corruption and complete economic incompetence.

Ken Saro-Wiwa is an environmental activist and leading campaigner for the rights of the Ogoni people. When four supporters of the Nigerian government were murdered in May 1994, Saro-Wiwa was one of the first to be rounded up. According to Amnesty International, he was beaten and tortured in prison, and his trial was a violation of justice.

If the international outcry is great enough, the Nigerian authorities may back down. For the military leader, General Abacha, it is a poker game with a pay-off: threaten to do something appalling, provoke a denunciation and then back down. In reponse the world community, relieved, reflects that Nigeria is not so bad after all.

The Commonwealth heads of government meeting in New Zealand next week should not fall for any tricks this time. The crimes of the Nigerian government are by no means confined to Saro-Wiwa's death sentence. The victor of the democratic elections in 1993, Moshood Abiola, is still languishing in prison accused of treason, after being deposed by Abacha.

Every diplomatic pressure should be exerted on the regime to introduce democracy. The sticky question is whether to go as far as economic sanctions. With a divided opposition, a fractious army, weak national institutions and a stubborn current leader, economic sanctions could destabilise the situation even further. And the moral argument for sanctions has been robbed of some of its force by President Nelson Mandela's remark yesterday that the South African government "prefers quiet persuasion of Nigeria".

The fact remains that apartheid South Africa is the perfect model of the role international economic pressure can play. In view of the failure of other forms of pressure, the case is now strong for introducing an oil embargo against Nigeria. The Commonwealth Conference should agree to introduce an embargo within the next few months unless the Nigerian government undertakes firm arrangements for an election next year under international supervision. It is the only language the military government understands. But if the threat alone doesn't work, the international community should brace itself for the long haul; for sanctions rarely deliver quick results.