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Defiant Abacha Trying to Win Friends, Influence Neighbors

December 12, 1995

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ On the face of it, Nigerian ruler Gen. Sani Abacha appears unfazed by international outrage over the hanging of nine dissidents. Behind the showmanship, however, it appears Abacha is orchestrating a major public relations campaign to stave off pariah status.

Officials within Abacha’s secretive junta say the general was taken aback by the swift and fierce reaction to the Nov. 10 executions. Some even admit he blundered by ordering the executions as Commonwealth leaders held their summit in New Zealand.

The 52-member organization of Britain and its former colonies promptly suspended Nigeria. The United States, South Africa, and 15 European countries were among those who recalled their ambassadors, and the European Union imposed a sports embargo.

``The government was indeed surprised by the negative reactions,″ Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Fred Chijuka said last week as ads defending the executions appeared in The New York Times and London’s Independent.

Information Minister Walter Ogonagoro went further, accusing the government of ``tactical blunders″ and saying its handling of the events was ``poorly done.″

``The timing was faulty, and it gave room for heads of government ... to take a resolute stance against us,″ he told Nigerian editors last week.

In an attempt to head off further punishment, the Nigerian government placed a half-page ad in Johannesburg’s Sunday Times before a summit of the 12-nation Southern African Development Community. South African President Nelson Mandela supports oil sanctions against Nigeria, and while the subject was not discussed publicly at the summit Monday, Mandela made clear he still considers sanctions an option.

The Johannesburg newspaper ad defended the Nov. 10 executions of playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others as just punishment for murder. ``Nigeria does not want to be a lawless state,″ said the ad, signed by the Nigerian High Commission, which represents the government.

Thursday’s two-page ad in The New York Times was purportedly paid for by families of the four men allegedly slain by Saro-Wiwa and his supporters, although Abacha critics are convinced his government paid for it. Promising to tell ``the whole truth,″ the ad recounted in a detailed chronology the conflict that culminated in Saro-Wiwa’s conviction in the 1994 murders of four political rivals.

Most striking was a letter written by Desmond Orage, the son of one of the four and a nephew of Saro-Wiwa.

``When I heard of the killings and the arrest of Ken Saro-Wiwa in connection with the murders, I flew to Nigeria to conduct my own investigation,″ wrote Orage, who lives in Los Angeles. The letter said that despite Orage’s hopes Saro-Wiwa was innocent, he became convinced of his guilt.

A television ad highlighting Nigeria’s contribution to international peacekeeping also has been appearing in the United States, another apparent prong in the campaign to rehabilitate Nigeria’s image abroad. The ad makes no mention of the executions, and Nigerian officials in Washington and New York said they had no knowledge of the ad or who had paid for it.

Saro-Wiwa, like his alleged victims and his co-defendants, was a member of the Ogoni tribe that lives in Nigeria’s oil region. As the leader of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, Saro-Wiwa spearheaded a campaign for oil giants to compensate Ogonis for environmental damage.

For that, supporters say he was framed for murders he did not commit.

Nigeria’s government denies the charge and says its courts responded fairly to a case of mob justice. Orage’s ad accused foreign governments and media of being biased toward Saro-Wiwa because of his fame as a playwright and darling of Western organizations, such as Amnesty international and Greenpeace.

The ad charged that they ignored the fact that four people were bludgeoned, mutilated, then stuffed into a tiny car and torched.

Mandela’s call for oil sanctions so far has been met with silence, but Abacha still has plenty to fear and is worried, said Randall Robinson, whose TransAfrica lobbying group is pushing Congress to approve sanctions and other punitive measures.

Legislation being considered in Washington would ban new investment in Nigeria and, most importantly, allow Nigerian assets held outside the country to be seized, Robinson said in a telephone interview.

``The moment those monies are identified and frozen, you will get the attention of the military regime,″ he said.

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