THE DEATH of General Sani Abacha plunges Africa's most populous country into fresh uncertainty, poised between fears that another brutal military regime will assume power and fragile hopes that his disappearance could lead to more democratic government and the country's reacceptance by the international community.
The immediate concern in London last night was for stability, and the need to avoid a bloodbath that might be triggered by fighting among the military, or by civilian protests in support of a return of democracy. "Obviously what we want is the restoration of a democratic government," one official said, "but the important thing right now is to prevent civil order breaking down."
The odds, it was acknowledged, must be on another instalment of military rule to follow General Abacha, who took power in 1993 and established one of the world's most brutal regimes. "He was the worst of a bad bunch," a Western diplomat said, "but there are plenty of others who could take over." A spokesman for Amnesty International expressed the hope that Nigeria's human rights record would improve; "But we just don't know, we have to wait and see."
After the execution of the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, Nigeria became an international pariah, suspended from the Commonwealth, subject to a wide-ranging arms embargo and shorn of most political and cultural links with Europe. It faced oil sanctions and the possibility of outright expulsion from the Commonwealth unless it restored democracy and human rights for the country's 104 million inhabitants.
Until yesterday, that prospect seemed next to impossible, after 33 political executions in 1997 alone, and the rigged nomination of Abacha as sole candidate in presidential elections scheduled for no later than October. Even now it is unlikely.
But some experts believe the prospect of oil sanctions had seriously worried the regime, and General Abacha's successor could seek to rebuild international fences. But the Commonwealth is split over Nigeria, whose case was being handled by an action group of eight members, CMAG. Some, such as Canada, favoured draconian measures; others, including Malaysia and Zimbabwe, were more cautious - and they prevailed at the Commonwealth summit in Edinburgh last October.
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