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14 May 1998 Edition

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Oiling the wheels of dictatorship

By Dara MacNeil

Two and a half years ago, governments the world over expressed outrage at the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni activists, by the Nigerian regime.

The regime of General Sani Abacha, we were told, would be isolated and treated as an international pariah. Abacha's bloody grip on power would, we were told, be loosened and terminally weakened by stiff international sanctions and behind the scenes diplomatic muscle.

None of this happened of course, except in the fevered, overworked imaginations of official spin-doctors and spokespersons.

General Sani Abacha is still in power and the threatened sanctions have conspicuously failed to materialise. Indeed, apologists for the regime sought to play up the General's supposed democratic credentials by pointing out that he had pledged to organise elections for later this year. And it would appear Abacha has been true to his promise - but it seems he will also be the principal candidate.

The military junta came to power in 1993, following the annulment of elections and the jailing of the winner, Moshood Abiola. The latter is still in prison.

More recently, on 8 May, the regime arrested an opposition leader as he arrived at Lagos airport. The current whereabouts of Olisa Agbakoba are unknown, following his arrest by government agents. Agbakoba is head of the United Action for Democracy Coalition, an umbrella body representing some 26 opposition groupings.

The reason for the remarkably supine behaviour of the international community is not too hard to fathom. Nigeria has oil in vast quantities, and high grade oil at that. As long as Abacha remains in power, the world's oil companies are guaranteed access to that vital commodity. And as long as they are guaranteed that access, they will continue to support the military junta in Lagos.

While Shell Oil was rightly vilified for its role in events surrounding the legal murder of Saro-Wiwa and the eight activists, the role of some of their competitors in maintaining the Abacha regime in power has passed almost unnoticed.

Indeed, Abacha's assiduous courting of the powerful oil lobby, along with a judicious use of PR firms has been crucial to his continued success. The Nigerian regime is believed to have spent in excess of $10 million lobbying US lawmakers.

A Washington lobbying firm, CR International, signed a contract shortly after Saro-Wiwa's execution with Base Petroleum, a company reportedly owned by one of Abacha's sons. CR International's brief was to prevent meaningful sanctions being imposed on the regime.

Last September, Lagos signed up another company - Ruder Finn - to help improve Nigeria's image in the US.

However, the military junta's efforts would not of themselves have saved Lagos from what it feared most - an oil embargo, which would have deprived them of just under $10 billion a year in export earnings.

US oil giants Amoco, Chevron and Mobil have also been eager to play their part in whitewashing the regime. Thus, Mobil is currently circulating US lawmakers with a report stating US companies have a ``substantial and long-term interest in the stability'' of Nigeria. For `stability' read status quo.

The company also threatens that bad relations between Washington and Lagos could cause serious damage to the US economy.

Nigeria is the source for approximately 9% of all oil imported by the US annually. It also produces a much valued and highly sought after crude known as Bonney Light.

What Mobil neglected to mention is the fact that the company stands to lose more than half a billion dollars if relations between Washington and Lagos were to sour.

Thus, the company's glossy brochure states: ``We do not believe that cutting off relations or instituting trade sanctions or boycotts will achieve the desired result.''

Of course, Mobil's interpretation of the term `desired result' could well differ from that held by human rights activists and many, many Nigerians.

The oil companies, and others, have also been working through a body known as the Corporate Council on Africa. With financial encouragement from US business, the Council established a Nigeria Working Group.

And surprise, surprise, the latter body has come out in opposition to policies that might prove detrimental to US business interests in Nigeria. That includes sanctions and/or an oil boycott.

Emphasising the value of continued links with the Lagos regime, the Council also points out that US business stands to benefit enormously from the proposed privatisation of Nigeria's telecommunications and power industries.

Remarkably, they also predict dire consequences for the US economy should moral, rather than profit considerations, prove to be the driving force in shaping US policy on Nigeria.

All in all, an object lesson in how government's policies are shaped in the modern era.

Observers expelled from Mexico

Mexico expelled 40 Italian human rights' observers who had formed part of a delegation to the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The Mexican government claimed the 40 had stayed in the country longer than the time allotted to them on their visas.

The expulsions came after a number of the delegation had demanded the EU suspend all commercial negotiations with Mexico, in protest at continued human rights abuses in the state of Chiapas.

Meanwhile, a retired US airforce officer, Frank Houde, has confirmed that the Mexican government has dispatched US-supplied Huey helicopters to Chiapas. The use of the helicopters in Chiapas is prohibited under the terms of the accord by which Mexico received the helicopters from the US.

The helicopters, 73 in all, were dispatched specifically for use in operations to counter drug-trafficking.

US ready to intervene in Colombia

The presence in Colombia of General Charles Wilhelm, chief of the US Southern Command, has fuelled speculation of a possible US military intervention in the country. Colombian press reports have claimed that General Wilhelm has proposed the establishment of a ``regional'' military task force, in order to combat Colombia's powerful rebel army, the FARC.

The guerrilla group has of late inflicted some serious defeats on the Colombian military.

It is suspected that any intervention might take place under the pretext of stepping up the `war on drugs.'

The US is already heavily involved in Colombia, providing training for army units and maintaining a force of some 200 `military assessors' in the country. An estimated 1000 Colombian army officers also receive training in US military schools each year.

Recently, no doubt in an attempt to soften public opinion, a secret CIA report on the situation in Colombia was made public in Washington. The report states that the 20,000 strong FARC pose a strong threat to the Colombian government. The report says the guerrillas are stronger now than ever before.

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