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Nigeria's Dictator Will Fall If the West Shoves Him

ON Oct. 1, Gen. Sani Abacha, the dictator of Nigeria, delivered his much-awaited plan for returning Nigeria to democracy. Vague on process and short on credibility, it confirms fears for the country's future. If democracy is ever to reach a united Nigeria, increased economic and political pressures must be mounted against Abacha's rogue regime.

The key point in General Abacha's announcement is that he will remain in office until October 1998. His purported constitutional plan for the country includes a president, vice president, prime minister, and deputy prime minister, each with unclear powers, to be rotated among six as yet undefined geographic zones.

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Referring to the general who preceded him as ruler, Abacha recently said, ''I have learned from the mistakes [Ibrahim] Babangida made.'' That was taken to mean Abacha has no intention of letting democratic posturing progress so far as to force him from power. His plan is to manipulate the process but avoid reaching the goal.

There are four major tactics Abacha will likely use to forestall democracy and maintain military control. First, he will continue arrests and terror. From his viewpoint, this tactic has been highly successful over the past two years - thousands thrown in jail without trial, widely reported executions of more than 70 military personnel, confirmed executions of 43 armed robbers, and scores of prison sentences for democracy advocates. Pleas for clemency from world leaders grew louder than external urgings for democracy. The lesson is not lost on Abacha: If you condemn more people, you control the focus of the rest of the world.

Second, Abacha will use the power of the pardon to soften postponements in his transition program, just as he did on Oct. 1 by holding out leniency. With more than 40 people under sentence, with Moshood Abiola, winner of the 1993 annulled presidential vote, still to be tried, and with the potential for additional arrests, Abacha holds more face cards than Babangida ever did.

Third, Abacha has already spoken of creating more states within Nigeria, a ploy that Babangida used adroitly. Pandering to every ethnic division, Abacha can hold out the prospect of new states, with their attendant perks of corruption and status, to buy himself several more years in office.

Fourth, Abacha will continue to use the favorite carrot of the military since the 1970s - bribery. To make bribery truly effective, however, the nation's economy must be kept in ruins, so that the sums seem relatively magnanimous. With oil revenues under state control and regularly stolen by the billions over the past decade, the economy is in the worst condition since independence. Abacha has the resources to play the bribery game until many of the Nigerian elite are either on the take or in detention.

Abacha is without question the most detested person in Nigeria's history. If he continues in power, Nigeria is likely to collapse. Given the tactical options at his disposal, only one thing can possibly challenge his divide-and-rule strategy - Western pressure, which has been inadequate to date.

The US and British governments have imposed visa restrictions on Nigerian officials, but both countries drop them when convenient The US has terminated military assistance and training programs, but Britain continues selling military equipment under the pretense that contracts were signed years ago. The US has suspended Ex-Im Bank financing and made it more difficult for Nigeria to qualify for multilateral funding. These mild measures constitute, at best, a slap on the wrist.

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Early reactions from the US and Britain to Abacha's latest pronouncements express disappointment, and the US has said it will ''maintain all existing sanctions and keep other measures under review.'' Failure to strengthen the sanctions at this point is tantamount to accepting the three-year process, which assures that Abacha will attempt to extend this to a four-, six-, or eight-year stay in office, as his predecessor did successfully.

South Africa provides a clear model of how the US can secure progress in troubled states - tough sanctions and clear benchmarks for alleviating sanctions, combined with assistance to democratic organizations. Today, South Africans themselves, white and black, widely praise the US for its signal courage.

There are many instruments of policy available to the US and Britain to promote democracy in Nigeria - tightened travel restrictions, seizure of assets of Abacha and his clique, stronger responses to human rights abuses, pressure on unpaid debts, and, most importantly, trade sanctions, including a limitation or cutoff of oil imports. It is a lack of courage and resolve, not of opportunities, that forestalls Western action.

Nigeria's democracy advocates are frustrated with the West's business-as-usual approach. Some may conclude, sadly, that the only way to alter the international response to Nigeria's situation is through bloodshed. The Nobel laureate and democracy activist, Wole Soyinka, has announced in London the formation of an underground resistance movement in Nigeria and plans for establishing a government in exile.

Both the US and Britain have failed to draw a distinction between the government and the people of Nigeria. Allowing policy toward this nation of 100 million to be solely reactive to the antics of Abacha and his tiny cabal is weak. Hopefully, successes in Bosnia, the Middle East, Haiti, and North Korea will embolden President Clinton. Nigeria is a test case of the ability of established democracies to influence events in collapsing states. To meet the test, Clinton should speak publicly against dictatorship and criminality and for democracy and human rights. Following the South Africa model, he should put sanctions on oppressors and support democrats. Nigeria's plight deserves more attention and better stewardship than it is now receiving.

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