TOPICS > Politics

Changing of the Guard in Nigeria

June 9, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And for more we turn to Walter Carrington, U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria from November 1993 until October 1997. He’s currently a resident fellow at Harvard University’s WEB DuBoise Institute for Afro-American Research; and Adonis Hoffman, a lawyer and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, who has served as an adviser to the Abacha government. Thank you both for being with us. Ambassador Carrington, what do you know about the new leader? Is he likely to take Nigeria into some sort of democracy?

WALTER CARRINGTON, Former U.S. Ambassador, Nigeria: Well, the new leader, General Abubakar, is a professional soldier, one who is highly regarded and one who has not been involved in politics before and I think equally importantly has no record of venality-no record of being involved in corruption, which was a hallmark for many of the people in the Abacha government.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Ambassador Carrington, do you have any sense of how strong he is, what kind of political strength he has?

WALTER CARRINGTON: That’s very difficult to tell right now. The question is whether or not the hard-liners around Abacha are going to be able to control the new head of state, or whether the new head of state, who I think if he were able to do what he would want to do, would move as quickly as possible to return the military to the barracks and turn government back to the civilians. But there is a real problem with the old Abacha hands and whether they will try to sabotage and undercut him.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, Adonis Hoffman, do you agree with what exiled playwright, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wooly Suyenka, said yesterday, that this was an incredible opportunity for Nigeria?

ADONIS HOFFMAN, World Policy Institute: Well, I think the sentiment is right on the mark. I would not characterize it the same way that Wooly Suyenka has. I think this is an opportunity for the United States to reach out to the Nigerian government. It’s a time where the country has been in transition. This is a break in the action, so to speak, and it gives the United States pause to de-personalize a policy that has characterized our relations with Nigeria. Sani Abacha is no longer a part of the equation. Now the United States has a sterling opportunity to go in, urge this new government to re-energize the political process, to bring some integrity to the political parties, and to urge those parties to go back and come back with true candidates, who can contest on their own merits.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Adonis Hoffman, do you think that General Abubakar is — do you agree with Ambassador Carrington that he might be able to lead this process?

ADONIS HOFFMAN: It’s unclear. One thing is clear about General Abubakar, and that is that he is clearly a military man. He has shown thus far no propensity for politics. He wants to –he views himself in the tradition of the Nigerian military, which has historically seen themselves as guardians of the Nigerian republic. They played that role in the early days in the 1960′s, before the country was torn apart, and the Nigerian military, those elitists-elite military men see themselves really as custodians of national unity and of the preservation of the Nigerian nation.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ambassador Carrington, with so many opposition leaders in prison or in exile, how strong is the opposition now? Tell us about the opposition.

WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, I think we may get an opportunity to see that in a few days. Friday is the fifth anniversary of June 12th, which is a very symbolic date in Nigeria for the opposition. That is the day that Moshood Abiola was elected president in 1993. And I think that the opposition-although so many of them are in jail, and so many of them have been harassed, is still, I think, rather vibrant. I would pick up on something that Adonis Hoffman said. I think it would be a mistake for the new head of state to base any transition to civilian rule on the current parties. I think the five political parties have all been created by the government. They represent no significant political trends in the country, as was shown by the recent parliamentary elections when nobody showed up. I think those parties ought to be left alone and allow the real opposition to have a chance to organize. I think that all the political prisoners need to be released. I think that Moshood Abiola has to be given a significant role in whatever kind of transition is to take place.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ambassador Carrington, at this point is Abiola the key opposition figure?

WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, he is the key living opposition figure. The other great opposition figure, General Yoaduya, died in prison under rather mysterious circumstances. Moshood Abiola represents a very strong constituency, especially in the Southwest of the country.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Adonis Hoffman, do you believe this process will work itself out in the next weeks, or do you think that violence is almost inevitable? I noticed again-quoting the exiled playwright Soyenka-he said if there’s not a quick return to democracy, there’s going to be fighting, armed insurrection in Nigeria. Do you agree with that?

ADONIS HOFFMAN: Well, there have been plans all along prior to the death of Abacha by the Nigeria pro-democracy groups to stage a series of demonstrations, principally in and around the Lagos area, so that is probably not going to change. We’re going to see in the short-term those demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience going forward. I expect that the Nigeria military is probably going to come down fairly hard on them to maintain and contain that-maintain some order. Let me go back to the whole notion of the five parties and, you know, this opportunity-I agree that the five parties are not perfect, but we’re dealing with some political realities in Nigeria and Ambassador Carrington knows those realities very well, he’s an expert on the country. The realities are, unfortunately, Chief Abiola is not going to be released. With the death of Abacha, Abiola’s fate is not-he’s not in jeopardy of imminent death, but his departure from detention is not going to happen. It could have happened had Abacha been elected at some point and maybe a year from that point Abiola would have been released after that transition would have occurred. Those facts are no longer present. The reality is that there are five parties that have been sanctioned by the government. The process has not been perfect, but they’re the only game in town, and now that Abacha’s not the sole candidate of those five parties all opposition groups and the established political elite have an opportunity now to plug into a system that admittedly is not perfect, but it’s the only thing that exists. If it’s scrapped, as Ambassador Carrington suggests, then you’re looking at a process that could extend well beyond another 12 months, perhaps 18 months into the future. And I don’t think anybody wants that for this country.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ambassador Carrington, the only game in town?

WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, it’s certainly a rigged game, and I would not want anyone to sit down in such a game. I do not think it would take the kind of time that Adonis Hoffman talked about. All it would take would be for the new head of state to announce tomorrow that they will allow the opposition parties that had tried to register originally now to compete and to free all the political prisoners. If the scenario laid out by Adonis Hoffman is true that Moshood Abiola is not going to be released, then I think we are going to see real crisis in that country and there is nothing upon which the United States can negotiate with this government. It seems to me that the bottom line in terms of our talking with that government has to be the immediate release of the political prisoners. Otherwise, we are going to see the same thing we have seen in the past-military governments making promises that they don’t keep-and we will see a process that will string out for who knows how long into the future.

ADONIS HOFFMAN: Prisoners have to be released, absolutely. But the fact of the matter is-and you know very well, Ambassador Carrington, that that’s not going to happen overnight without some concessions on the part of the government and without some corresponding concessions on the part of the United States. Perhaps-

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Briefly, Mr. Hoffman, and I want to ask you both this question: What’s at stake here? Is this the largest country, you know, the most populous in Africa? What’s at stake if this doesn’t work out peacefully?

ADONIS HOFFMAN: Well, clearly, the largest country in the region-in West Africa — in Africa — potential de-stabilization in the West Africa region. What’s at stake really is $5 billion in American national interests, economic interests, but principally in the petroleum sector on large, vibrant, markets there for American goods and services a lot there, plus with Nigeria you have a scenario that could make Rwanda and Burundi pale in comparison. So this is a very important process, and it’s very-it’s important that the United States now engage in a way that it has not done so before.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Excuse me. We only have a minute. Let me just get Ambassador Carrington on what’s at stake here.

WALTER CARRINGTON: Well, I would agree very much that that’s at stake. The question is: How best can we avoid it? And it seems to me that if we continue the same kind of policy, trying an engagement on a process that is flawed and transparently a farce, then I think the country is going to continue its slide into chaos, a slide that we have seen it under for the four years of the Abacha regime.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Ambassador and Mr. Hoffman, thank you very much for being with us.