Open letter to the Honourable Lloyd Axworthy

Thursday, May 7, 1998
The Hon. Lloyd Axworthy Minister of Foreign Affairs House of Commons Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6 fax: +613 996 3443 7 May 1998 Hon. Lloyd Axworthy, On behalf of the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists (CCPJ), a non-profit, non-partisan organisation dedicated to the pursuit of freedom of expression worldwide, I would like to commend you on your tough public stance against the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha in Nigeria. Because of your diligence on this issue, Canada has been at the forefront of a strong concerted effort to promote a democratic transition in that country. Canada's role at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM) and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) has been exemplary in this endeavor. However, we feel that due to the escalating events in Nigeria, now is the time for action. We urge you to help Nigeria's beleaguered media, in the face of growing attacks on journalists, some of whom face death for expressing their views. Four journalists were sentenced to 15 years in jail in 1995, for reporting on an alleged coup plot. One of them, Christine Anyanwu, editor of "The Sunday Magazine", was nominated for the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize this year for her fight for press freedom. The other three are Ben Charles Obi, Kunle Ajibade and George Mbah. Anyanwu and her colleagues are seriously ill, and we believe the Abacha regime must be taken to task for its harsh treatment against these and other journalists. More recently, Niran Malaolu, editor of "The Diet" newspaper, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for reporting on the alleged coup plot of last December. Surrounding the elections in April, numerous journalists and media workers were arrested. One of the most targeted media houses is the Independent Communications Network Limited (ICNL), which publishes "TheNews", "Tempo" and "PM News". Virtually every member of the ICNL staff, including editors, journalists and administrative workers - even security guards and the accountant, have been arrested. The editors of these publications have fled the country in fear for their lives, or are already in jail. Two ICNL founding editors, Babafemi Ojudu and Bayo Onanuga, are the recipients of the CCPJ's International Press Freedom Awards, to be presented this November. ICNL has long been a target of the Abacha regime, as have most independent news media in Nigeria who dare to speak out against the dictator. Concerning Nigeria's lack of democratisation, you have declared that you are leery about General Sani Abacha's pledge to return the country to civilian rule. Abacha has abandoned any pretense of democratic elections - indeed he was nominated to stand as the only candidate for president by all five of the officially-sanctioned parties in upcoming elections. The recent elections in Nigeria were boycotted across the country by citizens long disillusioned with this false process. Hence, Canada, and other nations who pledged to take action against Nigeria if there was no progress in the transition to democracy, should now take action. Despite your harsh public criticism of the dictatorship in Nigeria, the escalation of human rights abuses warrants that your strong words be buttressed with commensurate action. While you have endorsed numerous multilateral sanctions against Nigeria, the CCPJ questions why you refrain from imposing an oil embargo. While Department of Foreign Affairs officials have argued that imposing an embargo on Nigeria would be a unilateral action, it may well lead to other countries following suit. Already, numerous municipalities and institutions across Canada and the United States have implemented their own boycott of Nigerian oil. While DFAIT representatives have stated that our government is not ready to impose an oil embargo, Canadian oil companies have stated their willingness to cooperate if such an embargo was in place, but feel that the onus is on the government to take a stand. Meanwhile, Canadian Occidental Petroleum Ltd. only recently publicized its interest in joining France's Elf Aquitine SA to develop offshore oil reserves in Nigeria, a move that could have been thwarted by a stronger stand on the part of your government. Since the CHOGM unanimously decided to suspend Nigeria's membership in the Commonwealth, Abacha's regime has become even more aggressive in its campaign against freedom of speech and the cause of human rights in general. One of the conditions for reversing the suspension was the release of political prisoners and the implementation of free and fair elections. Neither has happened. It is clear that while your words have helped to rally a strong multilateral coalition of opponents to the military regime, the CCPJ urges that now that the timetable for the democratisation process in Nigeria has failed completely, Nigeria's membership in the Commonwealth should be ended and Canada should impose the strongest possible sanctions. Yours sincerely, Wayne Sharpe Executive Director

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