Nigerian Roulette

African-Americans struggle over an outlaw regime

| November-December 1996

In just three years, oil-rich Nigeria has gone from standing at the threshold of a democratic future to teetering on the precipice of civil war. General Sani Abacha’s reign of terror, including last year’s execution of playwright and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, has thrown the country into economic and political chaos—and has ignited a major skirmish among African-Americans.

Among those who have voiced their opposition to the Abacha regime are the Reverend Jesse Jackson, writers Maya Angelou and Alice Walker, producer Quincy Jones, and actors Bill Cosby and Danny Glover. As Jonathan Freedland reports in the Manchester Guardian Weekly (March 31, 1996), these people and less prominent figures have joined TransAfrica and its director, Randall Robinson, in calling for the kinds of sanctions once used to tame the apartheid regime of South Africa: an end to U.S. aid, a ban on flights between the two countries, and an eventual oil embargo. The Clinton administration has already suspended financial credit, restricted admission to the United States for Abacha’s followers, and announced a ban on defense sales—though recently engaging in more behind-the-scenes negotiations.

The African-American struggle over the issue reached new heights in August when Senator Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.), the only African-American in the Senate, traveled to Nigeria, raising the ire of Robinson, the Clinton administration, and other Abacha critics. Robinson called the visit deeply troubling, and the White House criticized Braun for going without a State Department briefing. Braun argued that senators should not be prevented from meeting with international leaders “because of some interest groups” in Washington. She also called criticism of Abacha unfair, echoing earlier statements by Minister Louis Farrakhan and Roy Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality.

Farrakhan, Innis, and other hard-core Abacha supporters are a small but vocal group whose members have accused the Western media of once again turning a racist lens on Africa. They also have defended the Saro-Wiwa hanging, charging that he was not as innocent as many believe. Key members of this group are closely linked to Nigeria’s government.

TransAfrica and its coalition of Abacha opponents are concerned because they fear that the country will collapse and take West Africa with it. Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria has oil reserves that produce annual revenues of $10 billion. But per-capita income fell to $250 in 1994 from $1,000 during the ‘70s and ‘80s. And ethnic strife (Nigeria is home to 250 ethnic groups), a worsening economy, and alleged government corruption continue to plague the country.

Farrakhan and Innis have expressed a more sanguine view. Farrakhan traveled to Nigeria during his controversial international tour following last year’s Million Man March and has called the U.S. government hypocritical in its criticism of Nigeria, noting that governments need time to mature. After all, he argues, the United States has been at it for more than 200 years.

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