Human Rights Stance of Pope In Nigeria Given High Marks

ABUJA, Nigeria—Human rights groups and Churches in Nigeria have welcomed the outspoken stance taken by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Nigeria against the repressive military regime of Gen. Sani Abacha.

The Pope's declarations—at two outdoor Masses and in three public speeches—were significantly more defiant than similar pronouncements about the regime of Fidel Castro during his visit to Cuba in late January.

Before his return to Rome, the Pontiff directed his aides to hand over a list asking for the release of 60 political detainees whose names had been gathered from human rights groups, governments, and relatives. In Cuba hundreds of political prisoners were released after the Pope's visit.

By the end of the three-day papal visit March 23, Abacha had not acted on the list. It is believed to contain the name of Abacha's arch-rival, Moshood Abiola, the presumptive winner of elections in 1993, as well as the former head of state, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo.

But some observers said the Pope's visit should not be interpreted entirely as a victory for religious unity and human rights. One who did not want to be identified said: “The generals [who run the country] see the Pope's visit to Nigeria as proof that this is a great nation. A great man came to a great nation—that is where their analysis ends.”

Some are pessimistic about the outcome of the Pope's lobbying, believing that Abacha may release some prisoners but only those who are not likely to stand against him in elections due in August.

A human rights group, the Constitutional Rights Project (CRP), issued a statement welcoming the Pope's intervention. “CRP believes that the immediate release of all political detainees, respect for human rights, and the implementation of a credible program of return to civilian rule, will lead us to the path of national reconciliation and prosperity,” said the group.

The Pope's visit—his second to Nigeria in 16 years—came at a sensitive time for Abacha. The August elections—which have not yet been confirmed—are supposedly part of a process to switch to civilian rule by October.

Meanwhile, imprisonment and torture by the military are continuing unabated. About 150 journalists, lawyers, and other critics of the regime are believed to be in jail; about 65% of Nigerian inmates are being held without trial.

The Pope gave crusading homilies and speeches during his visit. “God has blessed this land and it is everyone's duty to ensure that these resources are used for the good of the whole people,” he said in a clear reference to Nigeria's oil wealth—exploited by foreign companies for the financial benefit of very few.

At present, decrepit oil refineries and ill-maintained power stations are running at low capacity due to poor maintenance. This is causing fuel shortages and regular power cuts in a country that is rich in oil. Water is scarce in the provinces.

In Oba, the Pope told a crowd of nearly a million people: “There can be no place for intimidation and domination of the poor and the weak, for arbitrary exclusion of individuals and groups from political life, for the misuse of authority or the abuse of power. Justice is not complete without an attitude of humble, generous service.

“As your nation pursues a peaceful transition to a democratic civilian government, there is a need for politicians—both men and women—who profoundly love their own people and wish to serve rather than be served.”

In Abuja, the capital, the Pope met leaders of Nigeria's Muslims. During the meeting he denounced killing in the name of religion, apparently referring indirectly to brutal lynchings by Islamic fundamentalists in northern Nigeria during the past three years. (ENI)