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  • A Times Editorial

    A dictator's tool

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published July 17, 1997


    While his wife was setting fire to the Tierra Verde home he shares with another woman, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons was half a world away, cozying up to one of the most murderous and corrupt dictatorships on the planet.

    Lyons, head of the National Baptist Convention USA, finds himself in more than enough trouble for his actions right here at home, but his shameful dealings with the Nigerian regime of Gen. Sani Abacha should not be forgotten. Abacha and his henchmen have tried to lure many prominent African-Americans into becoming apologists for their regime. To their credit, most have resisted Abacha's inducements and have instead come to the support of Nigeria's courageous human rights activists.

    But Lyons was willing to be bought. He and his entourage -- including the suddenly reclusive Bernice Edwards, co-owner of the Tierra Verde house -- allowed the Abacha regime to pick up the tab for their extravagant visit. In return, Lyons became an enthusiastic mouthpiece for the Nigerian dictatorship.

    What about the regime's executions of non-violent political opponents, including internationally respected writer Ken Saro-Wiwa? Such concerns, according to Lyons, are merely a product of "the propaganda this (U.S.) State Department was selling."

    What about the Nigerian government's documented role in the international heroin trade? By some estimates, Nigeria is responsible for 40 percent of the heroin in the United States. But Lyons says he "didn't see a drug problem over there." Of course, drug problems can be difficult to see from the tinted windows of the limousines Abacha provided Lyons' entourage in the course of showing them a government-sanitized slice of Nigeria.

    Lyons blames media racism for his problems at home, but he can't fall back on that excuse for the criticism his Nigeria junket has earned. Abacha's most ardent critics are black. Saro-Wiwa was killed because he so eloquently condemned Abacha's crimes against humanity, and Africa's first Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, has been charged with treason for the same reason.

    Or consider the words of South African President Nelson Mandela. He calls Abacha's regime an "illegitimate, barbaric, arrogant dictatorship that has murdered activists using a kangaroo court and false evidence."

    Is Mandela simply spouting State Department propaganda, Rev. Lyons?

    When Mandela was still in prison and South Africa's apartheid leaders were scrambling to maintain their illegitimate monopoly on power, they, too, searched for prominent apologists to give them a veneer of respectability in the world community. Most reputable political and religious leaders refused to associate themselves with such a regime. However, a few opportunists, such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, took the bait.

    Now another illegitimate African regime has found another prominent American religious leader who is willing to do its dirty work. No doubt, Lyons figured that Abacha's regime, which controls Nigeria's vast oil supplies and other riches, would reward him well for his services. But no amount of money can wash away the stain that is left behind after consorting with butchers.


    ©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.