CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Nigeria was once the richest nation on the African continent thanks to its oil and other resources. Now the country is deeply in debt, with its infrastructure crumbling. Its politics have gone the same way. Africa's most populous nation has been run by a succession of military governments that have refused to turn over power to civilians, even after an election three years ago today. Since then, the regime has been cracking down even more strongly against domestic opposition. A leading opponent of the regime, Moshood Abiola, widely believed to have won the Presidential election, has been in prison for two years. He was charged with treason by the military government of Sanni Abacha. On the NewsHour last summer, the Nigerian foreign minister defended his government.
CHIEF TOM IKIMI, Foreign Minister, Nigeria: (August 2, 1995) Let me assure you that we will have democracy in our country in our own time, a democracy that would take into account our social, cultural, and political circumstances. It will be peculiar to Nigeria. It will not be the Westminster system which failed in our country. It will not be the American Presidential system which failed in our country. Now we know better.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Nigeria provoked new international controversy last November when it executed nine people, including poet and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. The hangings brought widespread condemnation from governments and prompted calls from human rights groups for international economic sanctions against Nigeria. But many nations involved in lucrative oil trading with Nigeria have refused to support sanctions. Last week, one of the wives of the imprisoned Abiola, Kudirat, was murdered. So far, no one has been charged.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The highest-ranking American official to visit Nigeria is Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, John Shattuck. He was there 10 days ago, and he joins us now. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. What first is the latest on Mrs. Abiola's murder that you can tell us?
JOHN SHATTUCK, Assistant Secretary of State: Well, Mrs. Abiola's murder is really an example of the political terror that is gripping Nigeria at this point. No one knows who was responsible for this. We do know that the assassination--and that is what we believe it was--took place about 200 yards from a police checkpoint. There is no evidence at this point of who precisely pulled the trigger, but we know that she was pulled out of the car and shot at point blank range. And obviously, this is a terrible terrible act in any country. And it was a tragedy in Nigeria, because it underscored the political violence.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Some human rights groups have accused the government, and over the weekend, there was some group that nobody had ever heard of who were--Support Group of Abiola, they call themselves, or words to that effect--saying that they did it, but you say there's no evidence that any--of anybody right now?
SEC. SHATTUCK: Well, one of the difficulties, of course, about Nigeria is how very difficult it is to get information about precisely what's going on. Nigeria is a, is a country which is gripped by lawlessness and political violence as well as political repression, and all of these issues combine to make it almost impossible to adequately determine who was responsible for this, but the United States is calling for a full investigation.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You met with her when you were there. What was she up to?
SEC. SHATTUCK: Mrs. Abiola is one of the many people in Nigeria who are struggling to bring their country to democracy and to bring about a better respect for human rights. She's, of course, the wife of the imprisoned Chief Abiola, who is by all accounts the victor in what was regarded as the freest and fairest election in Nigeria in history. It took place three years ago today. Uh, and it was thereafter annulled by the Nigerian regime that was in power and, uh, and, uh, basically because they didn't like the result. She is, she is a--she was a campaigner for democracy and human rights.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Were you allowed to see Chief Abiola?
SEC. SHATTUCK: I was not able to see Chief Abiola. I made a request of the government to do so but that request was not honored.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Were you allowed to see General Sanni Abacha, the military ruler?
SEC. SHATTUCK: I also did not see General Abacha. He has not apparently been accessible to anyone from the outside world for sometime now.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You asked?
SEC. SHATTUCK: I did certainly ask to do so. Now I did have good meetings with others in the government and delivered a very strong message that the United States and many other countries see that the deterioration of human rights and the rein of repression in Nigeria is such that additional sanctions will be imposed if there is not significant improvement in the, in the near-term.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Was that the purpose of your trip, to deliver that message?
SEC. SHATTUCK: That was one of the purposes of the trip, and it was a unique trip as well. It was a trip that was intended to put us in touch directly with many of the people in Nigeria who are themselves trying to overcome these difficulties and this, all these setbacks for human rights and democracy. And I managed to see a very broad spectrum of people across Nigeria.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You told me when we talked before the interview that this was the most moving experience you had had since going to Bosnia. What was so moving about it?
SEC. SHATTUCK: Well, I think what was so powerful about it was despite all of the secret trials and the thousands of political prisoners and the tremendous repression of the will of the people there are many people in Nigeria who are under these great odds struggling to bring democracy and human rights to their country. A visit like the one that I paid and others have paid gives them hope, gives them opportunity. One of their messages to me was that they believe that additional sanctions should be brought against the government of Nigeria.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now you say that you took the message to members of General Abacha's regime that if they didn't do something about the situation, sanctions would be imposed. What does that mean exactly? Was there a timetable, and can you back up that threat?
SEC. SHATTUCK: Well, first of all, there are sanctions already imposed against the regime. The United States denies visas to any of the regime who wants to travel to the United States, except for official business to the, to the UN. We have cut off all military aid, all foreign aid. And we have an arms embargo. Other countries have begun to do the same thing. What's at issue right now is whether additional measures will be brought--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Like an oil embargo.
SEC. SHATTUCK: Well, we're not ruling anything out, and this month, there are three very important sessions, one with the European Union here in Washington next week, a second with the G-7 countries, all of the industrial countries that will be meeting in, in France, and third, the commonwealth countries will be meeting, and all of these meetings will consider additional measures targeted directly at the regime, itself.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Just how bad did you find the situation? I mean, you said you met with all these groups, and they were very brave, and, and you were very impressed, but people who have been there or observing the situation or are getting reports say that it's basically on the verge of collapse, chaos?
SEC. SHATTUCK: Chaos is the word I think that most readily comes to mind describing it. I mean, you see crime routinely in the streets, the differentiation between political crime and common crime, it is often very difficult to see. You see a significant amount of narcotics trafficking. In fact, Nigeria is widely known to be one of the major narcotics trafficking centers of the world. You see corruption of all kinds, and a deterioration of the infrastructure of the country, which is a tragedy, given the rich history that Nigeria has, the tremendous resources that can be brought to bear on the world stage.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, why then is it taking the international community so long to, to tighten the screws on Nigeria?
SEC. SHATTUCK: Well, I think the screws have been tightening slowly but surely and we had, of course, thought that there would be a transition to democracy. The transition turns out to have become as much an instrument of repression with crees that allow the arrest of people without charge, et cetera. I think the--what is clear and has been very clear since the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa is that this spiral of repression is getting intolerable.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: President Clinton recently spoke with President Mandela of South Africa, who was way out front after the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa calling for isolation of Nigeria. Was he asking him to help out in this situation?
SEC. SHATTUCK: We have been consulting with many world leaders, and certainly President Mandela is one who is very obviously at the center of, of a moral stature in Africa and around the world, and talking with him about additional measures. There's no question about that.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What are the Africans doing? Are they doing anything?
SEC. SHATTUCK: Well, I think there's, there's division of opinion, to be sure. But the, the outrage at the climate of repression is growing, certainly growing in South Africa and in the United States and Europe and other African countries as well.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How soon do you think there will be some movement on this?
SEC. SHATTUCK: Well, I think there has been movement. We've seen the commonwealth countries themselves in the last month have applied additional sanctions and targeting the regime, making it very clear that those who carry on this kind of repression are not going to benefit from it in the international community is what the sanctions movement is all about.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Mr. Secretary, thank you.
SEC. SHATTUCK: Thank you.