Nigeria - After Ken Saro-wiwa's hanging, the regime's unresolved crisis and the calls for "sanctions"

Jan/Feb 1996

The hanging of Ken Saro-wiwa and eight other leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), on 10th November, pushed the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha once more into the international headlines. Protests were staged across the world outside Nigerian embassies and environmental groups - together with the politically correct Body Shop company - called for a boycott against the Shell oil giant, which they accused of being the real instigator of the hanging.

This groundswell of protest led to heated debates in international bodies over whether sanctions should be applied to Nigeria and what kind of sanctions. To be sure, this was pure hypocrisy. For Major and Clinton, the lives of a few activists, or even the fate of the whole Ogoni population, are worth nothing compared to the British companies' £600m Nigerian export market and £1.4bn non-oil investment and, of course, to the billions of pounds of Nigerian oil profits which are pumped every year by the oil majors! Even Nelson Mandela was slow off the mark, no doubt due to South Africa's fast growing business with Nigeria.

Eventually, the Commonwealth annual summit, which was taking place at the time of the hanging, "sentenced" Nigeria to a symbolic two-year suspension. This was followed by a cautiously worded resolution which was voted by the United Nations. All this gave a boost to those politicians and Nigerian opposition groups who had been campaigning for a long time in favour of international sanctions against Abacha's regime and action against Shell and won them Nelson Mandela's belated personal support. But that was about it.

Yet, if it had not been for the fact that Ken Saro-wiwa was well- known, this hanging would not even have triggered this tokenistic and hypocritical reaction. It would have been ignored like so many murders perpetrated in the past by the Nigerian rulers - and by so many Third World dictators for that matter.

Whether Shell was directly responsible for this hanging or not, is immaterial. The imperialist system as a whole, and all its component parts, are collectively responsible not just for the hanging of Ken Saro-wiwa, but for the cold-blooded murder of thousands of anonymous men and women whose only crimes have been to refuse to submit to the ruthless exploitation of their land and people by multinational companies or their agents.

Nor can the plight of the Ogoni people, the ethnic group on whose behalf Ken Saro-wiwa had been fighting for years, be dissociated from that of the Nigerian masses as a whole. Less than three decades ago, the manoeuvres of rival imperialist powers were partly responsible for pushing Nigeria into the Biafran war, causing one million deaths among many different ethnic groups, including the Ogonis. Ever since, Nigeria's poor masses have been at the receiving end of the army's almost uninterrupted dictatorship, enforcing the privileges of the multinationals as well as those of the small, but very rich Nigerian bourgeoisie.

In this context, the Ogoni crisis, which was highlighted by Ken Saro- wiwa's hanging is just the tip of the iceberg, the most visible part of a political crisis which has been shaking Nigeria for many years.

From a protest against the looting of the Niger Delta...

The Ogonis are one of the 20 or so minority groups which make up the 6 million population of the Niger Delta. Since the mid-60s, the oil majors have pumped billions of dollars worth of black gold from the land and swamp on which this population live - with Shell getting about half of the spoils.

The Delta population has drawn no benefit whatsoever from the exploitation of their land. They are still deprived of basic amenities like clean piped water, sewage systems and proper roads. Electricity, and generally any form of modern energy, remains a rare privilege - ironically, in such an energy-rich area.

Worse, the ruthless quick-buck methods used by the oil majors to pump the local oil reserves have turned the Delta into an oil swamp. Oil spillages from leaking ill-maintained pipes have severely damaged marine life in the Delta waters and impregnated the soil to the point of making it unsuitable for agriculture. The air is constantly thick with the fumes of hundreds of flares burning gas 24 hours a day. Disused pipes, drilling and pumping machinery, etc.. are left to rust. The oil majors have turned a large part of the Delta into a wasteland and a scrapyard which is becoming increasingly hostile to its own population and incapable of supporting it.

Had only one-tenth of this damage been made in one of the rich Western countries, Shell and co would have faced costly law suits, huge fines and the payment of large damages. But who cared about a few million people in a poor Third World country like Nigeria? Certainly not the Western governments. As to the Nigerian ruling military they were much too busy enjoying their cut of the oil revenue!

For a long time the Delta population staged protests against this cynical looting. These fell on deaf ears, however, both with the oil companies and the Nigerian regime, whose only response was to step up the army's presence in the Delta, while oil-pumping stations were surrounded with electrified barbed wire and put under constant armed surveillance.

MOSOP was set up by Ken Saro-wiwa, in 1990, as part of this on- going protest. Its main demand was that Shell, the sole operator in Ogoniland, should use some of the massive profits it had made over the years to repair the damage caused and improve local conditions. At the same time, MOSOP strenuously exposed the corruption of Nigerian government officials and their large-scale embezzling of the oil revenue which prevented the population from getting any improvement out of it.

Unlike other, more traditional protest movements, MOSOP used militant methods, relying in particular on the unemployed Ogoni youth who formed the spearhead of the movement. A series of large successful demonstrations were organised, blockading Shell's oil sites repeatedly in Ogoniland. So that eventually, in January 1993, Shell gave up and withdrew from Ogoniland.

This, however, did not mean the end of Shell's troubles. MOSOP's demand that the damage to the environment should be repaired was still not satisfied. And the protest went on. It was contagious too. Across the Delta, the fact that Shell had withdrawn from Ogoniland was seen as a victory, setting MOSOP's militant mobilisation of the youth as an example to the entire Niger Delta population. And the opposition to the oil majors grew, to the point of causing periodic disruption at Port Harcourt itself, the Delta's main town and only deep-sea oil terminal.

...To the army clampdown

Less than six months after Shell's withdrawal from Ogoniland came the cancellation of Nigeria's first presidential election, in June 1993. Not surprisingly, the Niger Delta population played a prominent part in the country-wide protest against military rule which followed. MOSOP, which had called for a boycott of the election on the grounds that the corrupted military could not be trusted to introduce democracy, led the protest in the Delta alongside the oil workers' unions.

This situation presented the military regime with a thorny problem. On the one hand, in the general unrest created by the aborted "return to democracy", the population's militant resistance in the Delta was a dangerous example for the rest of the country. On the other hand, Shell's decision to pull out from Ogoniland showed that the oil majors could also end up reducing their presence in Nigeria. After all they could find other sources of oil in the world and had no stake in hanging on to Nigeria if pumping oil there proved to be more costly there. This meant that the oil bounty of the Nigerian privileged classes was under threat.

The dictatorship responded to this problem by stepping up the repression, unleashing a terror campaign against the Ogonis, which included, for instance, the destruction of the small village of Ka in August 1993, where 35 people were killed and hundreds made homeless. For a while Ken Saro-wiwa and several leaders of MOSOP were jailed and the movement was driven underground.

Yet, neither the flooding of the Delta with government troops, nor the arrests and terror campaign succeeded in stopping the protest. By 1994, Shell was having to use half their 5,000 remaining staff in the region as security guards. And in May 1994, a memo signed by the chair of the Rivers State internal security task force, Major P. Okuntimo, stated that "Shell operations are still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence." This document went on to recommend the "wasting" of Ogoni leaders. The fact that, within days, four Ogoni headmen were killed in mysterious circumstances during a political rally cannot be seen as a coincidence. Ironically though, Ken Saro-wiwa, who was not even present on the day the rally was held, and eight other MOSOP leaders were charged with murder and jailed.

The 10-month trial that followed was a judicial farce. All the ceremonial of a court of justice was there, including the judges' wigs. But the court also featured a high-ranking officer to oversee the proceedings and a lawyer commissioned by Shell. Many incidents highlighted the frame-up which was in the making, including the revelations made by two key prosecution witnesses that they had been bribed and offered contracts by Shell in exchange for their "testimonies". The trial's endless debates were widely reported throughout the country, but it was obvious that the whole show was stage-managed by the regime and that the sentence had already been decided long ago. Indeed, Saro-wiwa and his eight co- accused were sentenced to death and were promptly executed, obviously to avoid leaving enough time for a protest to be built between the sentencing and the hanging.

Such a high-profile show trial, together with the military occupation of the Delta which was stepped up at the same time, were clearly intended by the regime as an example and a demonstration of strength aimed at the Delta population as a whole and their on-going rebellion.

At the same time Abacha was pursuing another parallel agenda, aimed at defending his regime against the opposition which was growing, not just in the Niger Delta but in the country as a whole. This was particularly visible after Ken Saro-wiwa's hanging, when the regime organised demonstrations in central and northern towns to support its hard-line stand. Abacha seems to have felt that there might be some political capital in putting himself forward as a Gaddaffi or Sadam Hussein-like figure, celebrating his alleged "resistance" to foreign pressures, while portraying the Southern minority groups as "unpatriotic" for their appeals to the outside world against him. These demonstations culminated in the so-called "Mother of all Rallies" on 28 November in the federal capital, Abuja, when civil servants and state employees from surrounding regions were given the day off, offered a N5,000 premium (although many complained of not having been paid in full...) and bussed into the capital, Abuja. Anti-imperialist slogans were chanted and placards held aloft against foreign interference (many of them upside down - maybe this was a way for the marchers to demonstrate their reluctance to be there in the first place?) and the march headed for the US embassy where the British(!) flag was duly burnt.

From blaming the Southerners for their lack of "patriotism" to pointing to them and to their "disruptive" and "unpatriotic" opposition as being the cause of Nigeria's economic chaos, there is only a short step - one which, if it was taken, could lead to a return of the anti-Southerners pogroms which marked the build-up to the Biafran war, in the 60s. Whipping up the north-south divide has always been part of the Nigerian politicians' toolbox since independence - as part of their inheritance from the British colonial days. It could easily become again a major device in the regime's desperate attempts at resolving the present political crisis. If this was allowed to happen, the price to pay could be even more terrible for the population.

The regime's unresolved political crisis...

More than two years on, the political crisis which was opened by the cancellation of the 12 June 1993 presidential election remains unresolved. This cancellation by the then dictator, general Babangida, reflected the difficulties that the army was having in introducing "democracy" - in other words, in handing over power to a regime in which so-called "democratic" forms would serve as a convenient and respectable cover for the continuing looting of the country's limited resources by its small privileged layers and their imperialist partners.

Babangida had taken no chances in preparing this election, taking the trouble of overseeing the political programmes, organisational structures and nomination of officers for the only two legal parties which were allowed to stand. Despite this, once the ballot was over, he obviously thought that the future regime would not fit the bill. Was it because the winner, millionaire Moshood Abiola, was the "wrong" one in his view? But since Babangida had certainly nothing to fear from the reforming will of one Abiola (whom he had short- listed himself), was it that, in the constant rivalries between privileged cliques, Babangida feared that Abiola could threaten the interests of his own clique? Was it that he was unconvinced by Abiola's ability to maintain an iron grip over the population and, therefore, guarantee the stability of the regime? Or was it that he was unsure of the army's willingness to submit to Abiola's rule, therefore creating the possibility of a split within the army itself, with the considerable risks for the privileged that this represented? We do not know. But whatever Babangida's reasons at the time, they seem to have remained valid for the army leadership ever since.

Back in 1993, the annullment precipitated widespread riots, protest demonstrations and strikes which were met with severe repression. When the wave of protest refused to die down, Babangida resigned on 27 August, appointing the interim civilian government of Ernest Shonekan - meant to preside over new elections. However the oil workers carried on with their proposed strike and were soon joined by many other workers from the public and private sector when the main union body, the Nigeria Labour Congress, declared a general strike in support of democracy. General Sani Abacha, in conjunction with Abiola supporters staged a "restore order and democracy" (!) military coup on 17 November 1993. That key Abiola men were supporting this new coup should not have come as a surprise - after all, Abiola himself had never considered coming to power against the will of the military and this meant seeking some form of agreement with them. Besides had not Abacha announced a constitutional conference to be elected in April 1994 in order to restart once again the "democratic process"?

However this was not to be. Further demonstrations and a wave of strikes followed, leading to the distancing of Abiola's supporters from Abacha's regime in another attempt to ride a wave of protest and get Abiola installed as president. The opposition effectively succeeded in their boycott of the constitutional conference election staged in April 1994 (only 300,000 votes were cast as against the 13m cast in June 1993 out of 39m registered voters). Abiola then declared himself president elect on the eve of the first anniversary of his annulled election only to be arrested and imprisoned a few days later.

Abiola's emprisonment sparked off a large wave of pro-democracy protests by students and urban youths. At the same time, a two- month national strike by tens of thousands of oil workers brought the country to a near standstill. Once again the regime resorted to repression. Union and strike leaders, student organisers, newspaper editors and journalists, etc.. were arrested. Three among the largest newspaper groups were closed down - theoretically for six months. Shortly after, the head of the army and navy followed by the hundreds of top executives who made up the boards of the state- owned companies and federal agencies were sacked overnight - this was Abacha's way of signalling that he would not tolerate the slightest complacency towards the opposition among the leading spheres of the state.

Then, early in 1995, Abacha moved against his remaining political rivals within the army itself, arresting the whole military faction which had initially been less than enthusiastic about his coup, including a former military dictator, Olusegun Obasanjo - but one who, in 1979, "distinguished" himself by being the only Nigerian general who ever actually handed over power to a civilian government. Among the dozens of defendants, Obasanjo and nine others were accused of a plot to topple the regime and sentenced to death - a sentence which was later commuted to between 15 and 25 years imprisonment as a gesture of goodwill to the "international community".

Today, having "cleansed" many potential opponents - or forced them into exile, like the leaders of the main opposition grouping, the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) - Abacha is back on the "democratisation" trail pledging to return power to civilian rule within three years. A whole number of new bodies bringing together politicians from across the political spectrum have been set up to prepare the ground for new elections, including a brand new National Electoral Commission entirely appointed by Abacha himself. Political parties will have to register with this commission in order to become legal and be allowed to stand candidates - but their programmes and organisations will also have to comply with a set of guidelines to be released by the commission! In other words, it is the old process initiated by Babangida in the early 90s all over again.

....On the back of devastating economic chaos

The Nigerian economy is in tatters. The current national debt now stands at nearly £19bn - which is just slightly less than the country's annual gross domestic product or the equivalent of 30 months of oil production - meaning that over 30% of the oil revenue goes straight back out of the country again to service the national debt.

The combination of heavy debt service, sky-high inflation and periodic currency devaluations - the common lot of many Third World countries since the mid-80s - has now built up to a point where it is threatening the country with bankruptcy and its poorest layers with destitution.

The shortage of foreign currencies is severely affecting the country's economy. Currency speculation is rife. In March 1995, for instance, five banks were struck off the list of those able to trade in official foreign exchange after failing to meet deadlines to settle their accounts with the Central Bank of Nigeria. The manufacturing sector is affected too. Peugeot Nigeria, for instance, is assembling cars at less than half their capacity due to lack of foreign currency to buy knock down component kits. As a result, the company raised car prices by 45% in September 1995.

The monetary crisis has led to massive cuts in the central and regional state budgets. Throughout 1995 there have been massive lay-offs in the public sector - the parastatal companies and the central and regional civil services. The Nigerian Security Printing and Minting Company sacked 1,000 workers in May. The Central Bank of Nigeria laid off 500 workers. Nigeria Airways is cutting its 4,306 workforce by half. The Nigerian Customs Service announced over 10,000 redundancies in September. Kwara state cut its 22,000 workforce by a third in April, Cross river state by nearly half in August, Enugu state by 25% - throwing out all "non-indigenous" employees to make the pill "easier" to swallow. The picture is similar right across the spectrum. All in all, forced redundancies in the civil service must total at least 200,000, so far. The private sector is affected too, with 5,000 workers having lost their jobs In private banking alone - but this figure is incomplete as statistics are only known for union members.

In addition to unemployment, the standard of living of the population has been reduced in many other ways. After the collapse of the 1994 oil strike, the regime implemented its long delayed plans to increase the price of petrol - which was more than trebled. The price of transport went up in proportion, so that workers can only go to work when they can afford the fare. Given the state of the roads, some journeys which took five hours now take up to two days. But an increasing number of workers have no work to travel to anyway. Retired workers from the Nigerian Railways, many of whom left over 10 years ago, have received neither their gratuity nor their pension. This goes for many civil servants as well. Rents have risen out of control. There have been cases of landlords who have been removing the roofs of houses while tenants who refused to pay the increased rents were away! While homelessness increases, the Lagos state governor sent bulldozers into the newly developed town of Aja, and levelled the whole town, on the pretext that these were "unapproved and uncondonable structures" - presumably because the appropriate bribes had not been paid to the appropriate people...

While public services and in fact most of the economy are going down the drain in such a dramatic way, corruption, nepotism and embezzlement have reached new heights. The oil industry is, of course, the main source of enrichment for a whole layer of the privileged classes, particularly around the army, which literally feeds out of the oil revenue, using the proceeds to buy expensive properties in Britain or Switzerland and to "invest" on financial markets... as far away from home as possible.

The diversion of oil resources takes place at every level of the management ladder. At a lower level, every year, hundreds of tankers full of petrol fresh out of Nigerian refineries "disappear" on their way to end-users' depots. They are sometimes "found" later in neighbouring countries - empty, of course. In April 1994, this large-scale smuggling of petrol out of the country was the main cause behind a national shortage of petrol which very nearly paralysed the urban economy.

Further up on the hierarchy ladder, the diversion becomes more "respectable". Thus, for instance, in the list of contractors currently allocated a share of the country's oil export market, the handful of local companies includes two which are owned by former oil secretaries of state, one owned by the family of a current minister and another owned by a former chairman of the state oil company - not to mention Summit Oil, a company owned by Moshood Abiola, thereby showing that even when in prison, the privileged remain part of the "selected few".

In fact, the example has been set by the very top level of the state, by the president himself. The Nigerian government, through the state oil company, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) obtains a 57% share in joint oil ventures with European companies like Shell, Agip and Elf and also US companies like Mobil, Chevron and Texaco. Out of this oil revenue come the funds which feed the so-called "dedicated" accounts of the president which were first established by Babangida in 1988 to finance "special projects" - probably the largest official "leak" ever heard of in the oil industry. An enquiry commissioned by Abacha - who nevertheless kept the same system for his own benefit - revealed that between 1988 and 1994 (well after Abacha's own coup therefore), £7.6bn from these accounts had disappeared into thin air. Given the circumstances of this enquiry the sum could well be much larger even than that. Not surprisingly, since he declared himself president, Abacha is said to have become a millionaire.

The Nigerian working class against the army

Since June 1993, and particularly up to September 1994, those at the forefront of the fight against the dictatorship were neither the flamboyant ex-army officers and former ministers who are now queuing for an audience outside the United Nations headquarters in New York or the Foreign Office in London, but anonymous fighters of the Nigerian working class.

The last major confrontation took place in July 1994, when the two oil workers unions, NUPENG (unskilled and semi-skilled) and PENGASSAN (skilled and white-collar), which organise the 70,000 workers in the industry, called an indefinite strike from 4 July. The dispute was sparked off by the threatened closure of oil rigs by foreign companies in retaliation for the Nigerian government's failure to settle a £600m debt owing for operating fees on joint-ventures.

Frank Kokori, NUPENG's leader, was immediately arrested and then released when his arrest failed to stop the strike. Oil-producing areas were swamped with troops. The army was called in, first to replace the strikers in the distribution depots, then to sell its own strategic reserves of petrol to end-users. While these measures seem to have allowed many army officers to establish themselves as respected businessmen on the black market, they failed to avoid a paralysis of the country. Not that the strike succeeded in stopping all oil production - the reduction is said to have been only 30% - but the policy of the military was to give priority to the oil companies (and therefore to their own cut on the deal) at the expense of the country itself. In fact, the oil companies even managed to increase their profits thanks to the price of Nigerian crude on the spot market which resulted from the strike! Meanwhile, public transport was stranded across Nigeria, workers could not get to work, factories and even radio stations had to stop operations for lack of fuel for their electricity generators, banks and commercial outfits had to close down for lack of employees.

The repression and systematic harassment by the army inevitably gave to the conflict the dimension of a confrontation between the oil workers and the army. Whether, as it was often said in the Western press at the time, the strikers' objective was to force Abiola's release and his installation in Abacha's position, is another question. Some of the oil unions' leaders were vocal Abiola supporters, particularly in PENGASSAN. This does not necessarily mean, however, that most of the rank-and-file oil strikers shared this view. After all, Abiola, being himself an oil magnate, among other things, was not the most obvious representative of the oil workers' interests.

In any case, because of the context of the protest movement in which it was taking place, the oil workers' strike appeared as a direct challenge to Abacha's rule. And it proved contagious. Although the leaders of the other unions remained silent, sections of workers, mostly in the public and service sectors, began to join the strike in several states, including in the regime's traditional northern strongholds. In some cases, workers were probably encouraged to join the strike by their own bosses who seem to have felt that Abacha's days were now counted. In most cases, however, the local union activists seem to have used any pretext at hand to call a strike and join the general movement - short of solidarity action which would have been illegal - sometimes the chronic backlog of unpaid wages or other local grievances, but often simply the difficulties to get to work due to fuel shortages.

Possibly most revealing as to the point reached by the situation, were the three calls to a nationwide strike (or rather a "sit-at-home protest action", to use their own words) issued by the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) during the first month of the oil strike.

It must be said that the NLC is not noted for its militancy nor for opposing whoever is in power. Like the whole Nigerian trade-union movement, it is closely controlled by the state on which it depends for a large part of its financial resources. More than any other union structures, its leading bodies are vetted by the regime in place - thus, for instance, in 1988, its elected national leadership team, which was considered too "radical" by Babangida, was replaced with a team led by one Michael Ogunkoya, whose previous job was as personnel manager of a multi-national! Yet, it was this tamed union leadership, which had been working so far hand in hand with the army, which issued these calls in support of the oil workers and for the release of all political prisoners!

Was it the feeling that Abacha's days were nearly over and that it was time for them to demonstrate at least a token support for Abiola by demanding his release, which prompted the NLC leaders to move? Or was their objective to take control of the strike wave in order to stop its extension (after all, in all three cases the NLC cancelled their call within the next two days)? We do not know. But whatever the real reasons behind these calls, the fact was that they were also taking the risk of encouraging the extension of the strike wave - a very dangerous thing to do, from their point of view, in this potentially explosive context, and which can only indicate how precarious the position of the regime was at that stage.

It seems, in any case, that the NLC's calls did encourage new sections to join the strike wave which maintained its momentum at least until the point when, on 18 August, seven weeks into the oil strike, Abacha decided to raise the stakes by dismissing the leaderships of NUPENG, PENGASSAN and the NLC and replacing them with appointed administrators who immediately ordered the strikers to return to work, while local strike leaders were arrested for ignoring this instruction.

The former NLC leadership simply disappeared from the scene. The leaders of NUPENG went underground but, not having the means to communicate with their branches, they were unable to do much more than avoid arrest for some time. Meanwhile the leaders of PENGASSAN relied on a legal challenge against Abacha's move, which they lost. Yet, it took nearly another two weeks before the oil workers resumed work everywhere. And this, despite the official announcement that all strikers would be sacked (which was cancelled when it failed to work). Significantly, at one point or another of the strike, every section among the strikers had been granted significant concessions on wages and conditions, showing how desperate the regime was to end the strike.

That being said, the strike was effectively crushed in the end and many of the concessions made were cancelled. The jailed national and local leaders have been in prison ever since, constantly moved around so that no-one knows where exactly they are being kept.

Yet, despite the scaling down of militancy since the end of 1994, as a direct result of repression, strikes in the public sector over job cuts and non-payment of wages have been carrying on all over the country. For instance, state workers in Benue state ended a one- month long strike in December when the government finally agreed to pay their wages backlog.

From the "sanctions" of the world market...

In the wake of Ken Saro-wiwa's hanging, Nigerian opposition groups, in particular NADECO, have renewed calls for international sanctions against the Nigerian government. Demonstrations have been staged by Nigerian activists in exile to demand that the US and British governments should take the lead by imposing a trade and investment embargo on Nigeria "similar to that which succeeded in bringing apartheid to an end in South Africa", as they put it. The most radical among the opposition groups have demanded, in addition, that all assets held abroad by Nigerian army chiefs and companies should be frozen and that oil payments to Nigeria should be put on hold.

But what sort of "sanctions" can these groups really expect the Western powers to enforce?

An oil embargo would be, obviously, the most powerful pressure on Abacha and his regime. The conditions under which the oil majors produce petrol in Nigeria, however, are unusually favourable since they pay neither royalty nor tax on profits to the Nigerian state while the latter pays its share of the operating costs. Some of the US and many German refineries are built to run on Nigeria's Bonny Light crude oil, and if they had to obtain oil from other sources, they would have to make costly changes. The bill for the oil majors in terms of reduced profits would be considerable and probably unacceptable for them. Unless, of course, they came to consider that the risks involved in operating in Nigeria were too great compared to the returns - but in that case, the resulting "embargo" would have nothing to do with sanctions. Besides, with what income then would the Nigerian state pay the interest on its debt to Western banks? Not to mention the loss of export profits that would result for many Western companies - in particular British ones, including heavyweights like Unilever, Guinness or Cadbury.

On the other hand, a campaign for disinvestment from Nigeria could provide a convenient moral cover for the divestment which the same companies have already started over the past years. A study published in 1995 by a British academic, Paul Bennell, shows that between 1989 and 1994 the number of British companies with equity investment in English-speaking African countries has fallen from 90 to 65. And of the remaining 65, nearly one third reduced their stakes over that period. It is true, says Bennell, that in Africa, local rates of return are among the highest in the world - which says something about the level of exploitation of the working class there! But, he goes on, there is also the huge overhead generated by political and economic instability - due to "intermediaries" (including the bribes paid to the likes of Abacha, presumably) and the erratic operation of currency exchange. As a result, according to Bennell, once converted into pounds, the actual return on investment for the shareholder sitting in London is reduced to a mere 6% on average - which is hardly worth the trouble, considering the rates of return that can be achieved on financial markets.

Hence the general divestment trend which has affected Nigeria, particularly since June 1993 - including, for instance, Unilever (the largest single foreign investor in Nigeria), Chevron Oil (who put 60% of their local company up for sale) and Volkswagen (who closed their assembly plant). Others could now follow suit, if it serves their profits, depriving thousands of Nigerian workers of their jobs and weakening further the Nigerian industrial machinery while pretending to hold the moral high ground in the name of the "fight for democracy"! This risk is all the more serious because the selling-off of Nigerian state-owned companies, as part of the debt reduction measures imposed by international financial institutions, leaves more and more production facilities in the hands of international predators who are only in it for a quick buck. Buying a former state-owned production monopoly for a modest price, then closing it down and flooding the Nigerian market with goods produced elsewhere without having to face any local competition, is a trick which has been played already on many Third World countries, and could be played again on Nigeria, but this time under the pretext of "economic sanctions"!

...To those imposed by imperialism

As to governmental "sanctions", they could easily offer a convenient excuse for all sorts of measures with very different aims from that of putting pressure on Abacha.

For instance, Britain's Home minister Michael Howard would be only too pleased to use such "sanctions" to reinforce his current policies against Nigerian visitors and residents.

Besides, every Western government would no doubt jump on the opportunity to cut a few more corners in their aid budgets, thereby affecting drastically the poorest layers of the Nigerian population, but certainly not the regime. For instance one measure already taken by the US in 1993 was the stopping of a quarterly £94m allocation to the disease control unit of the federal ministry of Health. As a result, the campaign on AIDS which was handled by this agency has now collapsed. Other aid projects in the health, agricultural and communications sectors could come under the axe. The European Union's aid sanctions, for instance, will halt rehabilitation of water and electricity supply schemes and, that project close to the heart of every Western "Green", the protection of the Obom Rainforest. Already Britain has suspended its National Resources Strategy, which would have been a follow-up to assistance given to the HIV/Hepatitis project which has been running since 1991. A European-financed libraries project has also gone as well as aid to rural health projects for child immunisation and monitoring of AIDS among children.

Of course, there is another reason why Western governments will not adopt measures which might really affect Abacha. Apart from preserving the immediate interests of their own capitalists, the Western powers must also be expected to preserve the status quo in their world order. And in the imperialist world order, the Nigerian state has been given the role of a regional power responsible for keeping the peace in that part of Western Africa. This was highlighted by the fact that, following the American military intervention in Liberia, in July 1991, Washington gave Nigeria - then under Babangida - the responsibility of setting up an 8,000-strong peace-keeping force, ECOMOG, in order to protect what was left of the institutions of the Liberian state in Monrovia, limit the damages created in the region by the civil war and represent the interests of imperialism on the ground in view of a possible future settlement between the warlords. This specific role allocated by imperialism to the Nigerian army explains the close links maintained by the US and British armies with the Nigerian military; it also explains why, quite apart from any consideration for Vickers' profits, the British government is unlikely to stop the delivery of the controversial Vickers tanks order to the Nigerian army - regardless of the disapproving noises that Major may be making for the benefit of his public opinion.

The key to the situation is in the hands of the Nigerian working class.

Of course, the Nigerian politicians who are calling for "sanctions" today know all this very well. Just as they know that their argument about the role of "sanctions" in ending apartheid in South Africa is a fraud.

Because it was not international "sanctions" which "forced" the end of the apartheid system. Much like they would be today in the case of Nigeria, the main economic "sanctions" which were applied to South Africa reflected the unwillingness of multi-nationals to risk their capital in a country which was showing a chronic political instability. The "sanctions" which were imposed by the US House of Representatives intervened only well after the disinvestment trend had begun. At best they were the last push given by the US state, at a time when the secret stage of the negotiation process with the ANC was already well underway, to create an incentive for the South-African bourgeoisie to come up with a viable transition from apartheid. But what really brought apartheid to an end, was first of all a concensus reached within the international imperialist bourgeoisie, including in South Africa, that since apartheid was proving a cause of regular political instability, it should be disposed of. And that concensus was in turn the result of the successive explosions of the black proletariat, from the Soweto uprisings in 1976 to the strike and union explosion of the early 80s and the township uprising which followed. The ANC heavy-weights could have canvassed the world governements until the end of time - but without the repeated demonstrations of strength of the black proletariat, no-one would have listened to them.

On the other hand, what this endless international canvassing by the ANC for "international sanctions" did, together with their influence in South Africa of course, was to put them in the front row as possible partners for a future political settlement. Because their canvassing was there to show their willingness to call on imperialism to act as an arbitrator in the South African situation instead of relying on the mobilisation of the poor masses.

And this is exactly the game that NADECO, in particular, is playing today. They know exactly how tokenistic their calls for "sanctions" are, but at the same time they are preparing for the future, displaying themselves as a serious and reliable alternative, from the point of view of imperialism, to Abacha's regime - so serious and reliable that they declare in advance their willingness to accept Washington's and London's arbitrations.

Of course, there are considerable differences between South Africa in the 80s and Nigeria today - if only because the prison of apartheid certainly generated much more resentment among the masses than the corruption and repression of Abacha's dictatorship. Besides, NADECO has probably much less clout among the Nigerian poor than the ANC had in South Africa, while the political instability in Nigeria is probably considered less threatening to the imperialist order than that created by apartheid in South Africa.

But the subsequent policy of the ANC once it became partner of a settlement overseen by imperialism should nevertheless be a warning for the poor masses of Nigeria. They should keep in mind the image of that successful black middle-class which emerged out of the disbanding of apartheid, while the aspirations for social changes which had been at the forefront of the struggles of the black proletariat were ignored contemptuously. They should keep in mind the arrogance of the ANC politicians, now sitting on top of the "democratic" institutions of the South African state next to the politicians who enforced apartheid in the past, while the poor masses have still no other means to resist against the social apartheid which is imposed on them, than those of the class struggle, by confronting employers and policemen whose attitudes have not changed, despite the black faces which can be seen among them. Yes, the poor masses of Nigeria should keep in mind all these bitter lessons of the struggle against apartheid, because the politicians of NADECO, the union leaders who support them and all those who line up today behind the name of Abiola and the calls for "sanctions", have nothing but more of the same in store for them. Behind NADECO, its former army chiefs and ministers, and its present capitalists, lies just another redistribution of the country's wealth and positions of power, not the social changes that could relieve the poor masses of their plight.

And there is at least one major aspect in common between the fight against the army's dictatorship in Nigeria today and that against apartheid in South Africa yesterday. And that is the existence and the role played by the working class in both cases. In South Africa, it was the fights of the working class which set alight the townships, linking them together up and down the country, beyond all ethnic and regional divisions, and threatening the very existence of the apartheid system. The ANC only emerged as the leading force of the revolt at a later stage, by taking it over from the top, and only to end up betraying the aspirations of the poor masses in whose name they were pretending to speak.

In Nigeria, only the fights of the working class, united behind the oil workers, have been able to threaten the power of the military over the past years. Tomorrow, only its social weight on a national scale will be capable of pre-empting the whipping up of ethnic divisions by rival politicians, be it those lined up behind the army or those behind Abiola. And only its collective strength, its ability to pull behind it the tens of millions of the poor rural masses, the urban youth and unemployed, its determination to fight against all privileges, including those of today's so-called "democrat" capitalists, can mobilise forces which will be capable of bringing down the power of the military once and for all.