"A Continental Pariah", Time International, 10.27.95

With Nelson Mandela in the lead, African neighbors cut their links to a brutal regime. The most noteworthy voice in last week's chorus of condemnation over the execution of Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa came from an unlikely place. For more than 30 years, Africa's leaders have earned a reputation for looking the other way at the abuses of their colleagues in power. South Africa's Nelson Mandela, his personal sacrifices for democracy notwithstanding, had shown some signs of carrying on that tradition. Even as the Nigerian government confirmed the convictions of Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists earlier this month, Mandela was urging other leaders at a British Commonwealth summit in New Zealand to take a diplomatic line with the military junta in Lagos.

Then news came that Saro-Wiwa and eight other antigovernment activists had been hanged. Mandela was furious. Branding the killings "a heinous act," he spearheaded the successful effort to suspend Nigeria from the 53-member Commonwealth.

At home in South Africa, African National Congress officials who had been accused of dithering over Nigeria quickly fell into line. The Cabinet unanimously endorsed Mandela's call for sanctions against the Nigerian regime. Arms sales have been banned, and the South African Football Association barred Nigeria from an upcoming tournament. Even the Miss World contest in the northern resort town of Sun City was affected when Miss Nigeria was forced to withdraw. "We are morally obliged to act, in particular on the African continent," said A.N.C. Deputy Secretary-General Cheryl Carolus as she launched a pressure group of labor unions, churches and sports bodies to lobby for democratic change in Nigeria. "Our own experience in [South Africa] reminds us that an extra day under dictatorship is a day too long."

South Africa's, of course, was just one of many voices raised in anger last week. The European Union decided at a special session to tighten an arms embargo on Nigeria and suspend almost $300 million of uncommitted development aid. The exodus of ambassadors from Lagos continued, with countries from Venezuela to Russia recalling their envoys. Pressure also mounted in the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress for a ban on sporting events and cultural exchanges involving Nigeria.

Still, Western powers remained reluctant to impose the only measure likely to bring down the Nigerian regime: a boycott of the oil exports that generate 90% of the governmentŐs revenue. Talk of such sanctions has already caused the value of Nigeria's currency to drop more than 10%. But diplomats said implementing an oil embargo would require an international consensus that has yet to emerge.

As if to underscore that point, Royal Dutch Shell, the company that produces the bulk of Nigeria's crude, announced last week that it was pushing ahead with a $3.8 billion natural-gas project, the largest foreign investment in Nigeria's history. Defending the decision, Shell International director Dick van den Broek said the project was unlikely to benefit the current government since it would come on line only in the next century, although in the meantime it would create thousands of jobs for ordinary Nigerians. But the news outraged government opponents, who accuse the company of complicity with the country's military rulers. "I am absolutely flabbergasted that they can go ahead with this at this time," said Ken Wiwa, son of the slain activist. Emboldened by the Shell decision, NigeriaŐs strongmen have responded to the international outcry with characteristic bravado. In his first statement since the executions, General Sani Abacha told supporters that "we will do everthing possible to maintain our unity, stability and security." At the same time, he mounted a publicity blitz that included pro-goverment rallies and a TV documentary titled Not in Our Character: Enough Is Enough in This Calculated Attempt to Smear Our Image as a People and Nation.

In the end it may be the African response to the hangings that is most telling. Seventeen heads of state backed MandelaŐs call for sanctions at the Commonwealth summit, and the South African President last week announced plans to meet with leaders from eight neighboring countries to coordinate a campaign against Nigeria. Mandela is using his enormous prestige to push for trade sanctions from Britain and the U.S., which remain Nigeria's biggest overseas partners. His influence even swayed such Old Guard autocrats as Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, who like Mandela had lobbied against expelling Nigeria from the Commonwealth prior to the executions. Moi returned to Nairobi last week to declare that he was "horrified" at the hangings. "Even if you are my friend and you turn out to be a murderer, you are no longer my friend," he said.

Such talk is nearly unprecedented among Africa's longtime rulers. Indeed, the most important legacy of the deaths of Saro-Wiwa and the other activists may be a dawning realization among the continentŐs heads of state that some abuses will no longer pass unnoticed. Human-rights advocates across Africa praised the strength of the world condemnation: "It's good to know that if we continue our fight and are hit by the government, the international community will come to our aid," Willy Mutanga, campaigner for constitutional reform in Kenya, said last week. If that proves true, Ken Saro-Wiwa's last words before he died may not have been uttered in vain: "God take my soul, but the struggle continues."

--Andrew Purvis (Kenya), Peter Hawthorne (South Africa)