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Nigeria's Political Progress Essential to Stability of Africa

AMID the tragedy of Rwanda and the euphoria surrounding South Africa and its president, Nelson Mandela, the United States has diverted attention from Africa's most threatening problem. Nigeria, with the largest population on the continent, is teetering on the brink of dissolution. The prolonged occupancy of power by the military is propelling this impending tragedy.

Nigeria's dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, may be the most corrupt individual ever to succeed in taking over a country. Others have become more corrupt after achieving power, including Marcos, Mobutu, probably Stroessner of Paraguay, and certainly Babangida, Abacha's predecessor. But General Abacha, Babangida's no. 2, was by some estimates a billionaire before his November takeover.

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According to information circulating in Nigeria and not disputed by Abacha, his wealth derives from interests in oil, transportation, communications, construction, and smuggling, the favorite pastime of many of Nigeria's top military officers. He purchased a US carrier, American Trans Air, to give himself direct access to this country's market. He is reputedly the principal owner of International Petroleum Company, which buys Nigerian oil for resale overseas. His contracting company, Chaguri & Chaguri, is undertaking countless overpriced projects within Nigeria.

The biggest game of all for the top brass in recent years has been the ``dedicated account.'' Nigeria's oil revenues received into overseas accounts are diverted to dedicated accounts, ostensibly for legitimate purposes but in fact for the enrichment of a few top generals and appointed officials. The respected Nigerian economist, Dr. Pius Okigbo, recently examined what happened to the country's oil revenues earned by the Babangida administration during the Persian Gulf crisis. He bravely submitted his report to Abacha: Out of $12.4 billion received, $12.2 billion was clandestinely disbursed.

According to some views in Nigeria, Abacha is principally motivated by a desire to achieve corruption parity with Babangida -

parity in terms of money stolen and years in power. If Abacha is given free rein to pursue such aims, Nigeria will collapse.

The criminalization of the Nigerian state is evident. A cabal of some 40 or 50 are and have been looting the treasury in magnitudes perhaps never before seen anywhere. A highly placed official within the Nigerian presidency referred to this government as a ``regime of absurdity.''

Earlier this year, US policy was guided by the oft-repeated observation that no one in Nigeria wanted the country to break up. That is true, but even more repugnant to Nigerians than the breakup of the state is further delay in returning to democracy, with power accessible to all sections of the country. The motivation for escape from military rule overrides the motivation for national unity. Denial of prompt, open, and competitive democracy will likely lead to the dismemberment of the nation.

US oil purchases can be used as an instrument for political change. Nigeria sells the largest share of its exceptional, low-sulfur crude oil - 30 to 40 percent - to the US. The billions of dollars generated are not finding their way back into the Nigerian economy. Standards of living for the vast majority have collapsed in the last three or four years. What is accruing as an economic advantage to Americans is accruing as malnutrition, sickness, and even death to Nigerians.

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US policy is constrained by several factors: the Congressional Black Caucus's insistence that the annulled June 12, 1993 election of Moshood Abiola as president be dealt with; a General Accounting Office report saying that a US boycott of Nigerian oil would hurt the regime but only be truly effective if also applied by European countries; an anticipation that disunity within the Nigerian military will lead to a change of government anyway; and an apparent unwillingness to risk US gasoline prices rising, particularly before the November elections. None of these is adequate reason for the US to do business as usual with a state ``kleptocracy'' impoverishing Africans.

If Nigeria does dissolve, it will likely generate ethnic conflict on an unprecedented scale in Africa and, even more seriously, have potentially catastrophic effects on the unity of other large states, most particularly Zaire, Sudan, Angola, and even Kenya and Algeria. No scenario is worse than reducing Africa to postage stamp enclaves, effectively taking the continent out of the 21st century.

It is time to implement a boycott of US purchases of Nigerian crude oil and set out political goals to be achieved in order for the boycott to be lifted. This should be coupled with the appointment of a high-profile policy representative to push for democracy, such as Don McHenry, Andrew Young, or Colin Powell.

In South Africa US sanctions worked, and today we celebrate that country's leadership and prospects. In Nigeria US sanctions can likewise work and can contribute to the political progress of Africa's largest entity and to the stability of the continent.

The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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