Nigerian Roulette

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.

At the heart of the pro-Nigeria campaign is the Reverend Maurice Dawkins and a small army of U.S. public relations professionals. Dawkins is a onetime Senate candidate in Virginia with ties to the religious right and a registered agent for the Nigerian government. He has worked closely with the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), a trade group that represents more than 200 black newspapers with 11 million readers, to get a pro-Abacha viewpoint to American blacks. As Ron Nixon reports in The Nation (May 20, 1996), Dawkins helped organize an Abacha-financed fact-finding mission to Nigeria for NNPA members, who later published favorable editorials and attacked Western media coverage as racist. Many black newspapers recently carried an eight-page insert titled “Nigeria: A Closer Look,” with writings from NNPA president Dorothy Leavell, Innis, and Dawkins, who was described as a freelance writer. A full-page ad supporting the Nigerian government that appeared in 110 black newspapers was signed by the Coalition for Fairness in Nigeria, a Dawkins group.

Dawkins and others are trying to “create doubt” about Nigeria, Mel Foote of the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Constituency for Africa told The Nation. Replied Dawkins: “Everyone has lobbyists. That’s the way we do business in this country.”

But efforts to win the public relations war appear to be failing. Abacha’s release of five political prisoners in June didn’t stop a United Nations panel of judicial experts from accusing the regime of major human rights violations in a July report. And despite Dawkins’ efforts and visits to Nigeria by prominent figures such as Braun, much of black public opinion also remains opposed to the regime. A majority of Braun’s colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus have signed a bill calling for sanctions; the National Black Caucus of State Legislators has declined a Dawkins invitation to Nigeria; and the New York City Council has passed a resolution condemning the regime.

As Nixon notes in The Nation, the NNPA has every right to “call attention to negative images of Africa and its people.” But under the influence of Dawkins and the Nigerian government, the group has crossed the line between journalism and public relations, “substituting one myth for another.”

A solution to the crisis seems nowhere in sight, but Nigeria’s native son and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka argues in his book, The Open Sore of a Continent(Oxford University Press), that Nigerians are “primed for a campaign of comprehensive civil disobedience.” This would be a page out of African-Americans’ own civil rights history–a history that Robinson and others would argue that Dawkins and his crew seem to have forgotten.

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