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Mandela, Si; Abacha, No

NELSON MANDELA, the South African president who has brought so much fresh hope to his nation, is hobnobbing in Washington this week, coaxing investments from American business leaders. Meanwhile, a man who might be able to play a similar role in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, languishes in a prison cell.

Businessman Moshood Abiola was elected president of Nigeria in June 1993. But a military junta, led by Gen. Sani Abacha, threw him in jail earlier this year when he tried to take office.

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According to press reports, Mr. Abiola will be allowed a hearing today on his appeal against being tried for treason and his request for bail. A strike by oil workers and other unions this summer aimed at winning Abiola's release failed after nine weeks, but incidents of sabotage and unrest by groups opposed to the military regime continue.

General Abacha has responded to calls for Abiola's release with increased oppression. He fired civilian Attorney General Olu Onagoruwa, who had criticized an Abacha decree that gave the military broad power to stifle opposition. And he has replaced the last vestiges of civilian government with a 25-member ruling council made up of only military men.

The government also has shut down the nation's leading newspaper, The Guardian, as well as many others. Playwright and government critic Ken Saro-Wiwa has been detained without charge since May. Author Wole Soyinka, an eloquent critic of the regime, has been prevented from traveling abroad. And when pro-democracy lawyer Gani Fawehinmi tried to launch an opposition political party Oct. 1, he was quickly arrested.

Nigeria, blessed with oil wealth and with more than twice the population of South Africa, has the potential to be a second huge economic engine helping to pull Africa out of poverty. Abacha's military regime, like those before it, is guilty not only of violations of human rights; it also is guilty of squandering the nation's economic future through corruption and mismanagement.

At a glittering White House state dinner Tuesday night honoring Mr. Mandela, President Clinton said the world should watch and follow South Africa's example, which began with political reform. It was brought about by courageous South Africans abetted by crucial help from the United States and other caring nations. When will the US and others awake to the huge potential - and urgency - of reform in Nigeria, and take stronger action?

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