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MAN: You’re no leader of Nigeria. You’ve got no right to murder anybody!
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has faced growing international isolation since last November, when it executed one of the country’s leading human rights crusaders, Ken Saro-Wiwa. He had been especially vocal, protesting the oil industry’s alleged destruction of lands in Southern Nigeria inhabited by his fellow Ogoni tribesmen. In a move led by Nelson Mandela, Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth Organization.
Several countries, including the United States, recalled their ambassador, but some are returning, and all have stopped short of responding to calls for international economic sanctions. For an update on the situation, I spoke earlier with the U.S. ambassador, Walter Carrington. Mr. Ambassador, thank you for joining us.
WALTER CARRINGTON, U.S. Ambassador, Nigeria: It’s good to be here.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Have things gotten any better since you were recalled from Nigeria?
AMB. WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, things have sort of remained somewhat the same in the sense the government has made one step forward and then sometimes two steps backwards.
So, unfortunately, the situation is still pretty much the same in terms of their movement towards a return to civilian rule. They’ve come up with a three-year program. A lot of people think that it ought to be done a lot quicker. The human rights situation is still murky. A number of people who have been arrested over a year ago are still in–are still in prison.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What is the status of the detained president, Abiola, and the other people arrested, associates of his and Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was, as we said earlier, killed by the government last year?
AMB. WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, Mr. Abiola is still in jail. There have been a number of efforts to get him released. The government has said that they are going to continue with the judicial process, and they will do nothing until that judicial process is finished, so that if they follow that logic, then he’s likely to remain in jail quite a while, because that process has continued to drag on. General Obasanjo, the one military leader who turned the government back to civilian rule, is still in prison, having been jailed as a result of the coup plot that–for which a number of people were tried, and he was given a long sentence and is still in jail.
The associates of Ken Saro-Wiwa, there were nine of them executed, and there is talk now of another trial, of another thirty, that is likely to take place, although there has been no, no time set for that. The government has released a handful of people who have been in prison who were in prison around the time of Abiola, but others remain in prison, and harassment of the press continues, although the three newspapers that were banned in the past have now been allowed to, to publish again.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But, on balance, things are still pretty–how would you describe them?
AMB. WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, I would say that the Nigerian government still hasn’t taken the steps that are–that it needs to take in order to reassure the international community, but more importantly, its own people, that it is genuinely committed to a return to civilian rule and a respect for human rights.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: As you know, there have been tougher calls, calls for tougher measures than returning you, the ambassador, and the military equipment sanctions I think it was that the U.S. put on Nigeria. Why is the U.S. resisting if the situation hasn’t improved, and yet all the things that you’ve asked Nigeria to do, they’re essentially thumbing their noses at?
AMB. WALTER CARRINGTON: Our hope is that by concerted action which would involve a number of countries–you can remember at the time of the executions, 24 countries pulled their ambassadors out for consultations in protest to what had, what had happened, including the South Africans, a number–some countries in Latin America, et cetera.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But now Nelson Mandela, who tried quiet diplomacy, then after Saro- Wiwa’s death called–caused actually Nigeria to be excluded, expelled from or suspended from the Commonwealth–is now calling for tougher economic sanctions.
AMB. WALTER CARRINGTON: Yes.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And my question is: Why is the U.S. resisting?
AMB. WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, there is no resistance. What we realize is that in order for any of these measures to be effective, they’ve got to be multilateral.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, how strongly is the U.S. pushing for this?
AMB. WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, I think–
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I mean, is the U.S. committed to it?
AMB. WALTER CARRINGTON: Yes. I think the U.S. has been out in front right from the very beginning in terms of sanctions. After the hanging of the Ogoni Nine, the European countries now came in line with sanctions that we have had in, in place for the last two years, so that we, we have been in the lead, and we continue.
I think one of the important things to remember and one of the, I think, encouraging things in Nigeria is the U.S. stand. The U.S. is seen by Nigeria as “the” major force, international force, calling for a return to civilian rule and for an ending of human rights violations.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But there are critics of the U.S. position who say that, like Congressman Donald Payne and others, who say that the U.S. stand has been of limited use because, you know, no matter what the U.S. has said, Nigeria has gone on its merry way. I mean, is the U.S. embarrassed at all by its failure to get Nigeria to respond to it in a more positive way?
AMB. WALTER CARRINGTON: I wouldn’t–I wouldn’t say embarrassed. Look, you know, the United States is a country that has great influence but we do not dictate. What we are trying to do is to get a number of countries joining together in actions that will lead the Nigerian government to quicken its pace back to civilian rule and to release all of the people whom we regard as political prisoners.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you agree that oil and oil companies are contributing, if not causing, the strike in Nigeria? Because, again, some of those same critics say that, you know, 95 percent of, of the export income for the military is derived from the sale of oil, the U.S. gets half of that oil, and that the oil income is the general sole reason for holding onto power, do you agree with that?
AMB. WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, I think there’s no question that oil is the most important resource that that government has. I think it unfair to say that the oil companies are causing this, this problem because to do that is to take the blame away from, from the military, which is refusing to return power back, back to, to civilian rule.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Many of the countries that you say you’re trying to engage in some constructive action are sending their ambassadors that they recalled at the same time you were back to Nigeria, saying that useful dialogue is better achieved there. Do you agree with that? Does the U.S. agree with that?
AMB. WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, you’ve got to remember that the ambassadors were recalled for consultations, which means for a very limited period, where they came back to talk to the governments to decide what the next steps ought to be. It was not a break in relations, and I think it very important that the international community be there. I remember when we were–
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, will you be going back?
AMB. WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, I–I expect to be going back. The timing of that will depend upon our finishing our own review of what our–of what our policies ought to be.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But do you expect U.S. policy to get tougher?
AMB. WALTER CARRINGTON: Oh, yes. I think–I think it’s quite clear that as this process continues that the measures that will be used will be tougher, as it has been from the beginning.
For the two years I’ve been out there, our, our measures have become progressively, progressively tougher with the, with the government, and we are encouraged by the fact that now our allies are where we were last November, and we’re hoping that we can all move forward in order to give Nigeria the opportunity to return to what it ought to be, a place of leadership on the African continent.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Mr. Ambassador, thank you for joining us.
AMB. WALTER CARRINGTON: Thank you.