Agboola Gambari, Nigeria's permanent representative at the United Nations in New York, has been thwarted in attempts to improve his country's image in American academic circles.
Professor Gambari, a respected scholar of Nigeria's foreign policy since independence, former head of department of international relations at Ahmadu Bello University and a former student of Columbia University, recently tried to get two universities in New York to accept Nigerian finance for study in tropical medicine and peace studies.
The attempts fell foul of the reaction to the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995. Several human rights and environmental organisations in New York have been trying to isolate and punish Nigeria's rulers for gross human rights abuse.
Professor Gambari approa-ched the school of medicine at New York University, offering to fund a postdoctoral fellowship. NYU officials initially agreed to accept the offer but told Professor Gambari that an advertisement had to be placed in newspapers to enable the university to apply. The Nigerian officials complied but feared that the advertisement might alert opponents of the regime to what they wanted to undertake discreetly.
The advertisement for the "Sani Abacha Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Department of Medicine and Molecular Parasitology" was published for a fellowship for one year.
When the proposal became public knowledge NYU started receiving telephone calls from human rights organisations and members of Nigerian opposition groups abroad, including Wole Soyinka, Africa's first Nobel Laureate in literature.
Biodun Jeyifo, who teaches African literature at Cornell University, and Julius Ihonvbere, professor of international relations at the University of Texas in Austin, pointed out the danger of receiving financial assistance from Nigeria's military regime.
Worried about the possibility of being tagged as a promoter of Abacha's military machine, NYU returned the $500,000 for the fellowship to the Nigerian authorities in New York.
Professor Gambari also suffered another major setback, this time at City University of New York. Moibi Amoda, a Nigerian and one of the prominent advisers of ex-dictator General Ibrahim Babangida, is the head of CUNY's black studies department. Working in collaboration with Professor Gambari, Professor Amoda designed a masters programme in peace studies, ostensibly for African nations, and he eventually got the cooperation and support of the United Nations.
In his presentation of the course to the university authorities, Professor Amoda made a strong case for Nigerian military officers to attend such a course, because of the country's track record in peace-keeping missions. Again, human rights activists and members of the Nigerian opposition mounted pressure on CUNY to reject the project. Some human rights activists at Medgar Evers College, an arm of CUNY, accused Professor Amoda of being "a Nigerian agent trying to improve the image of the military government", an accusation which he immediately denied.
Sources close to CUNY suggest that Egypt or South Africa might replace Nigeria as co-sponsor and beneficiary of the programme. Meanwhile, Nigeria's participation has been put on hold: "We shall continue to mount pressure on democratic nations and organisations to isolate Nigeria's military rulers, as long as genuine democracy is not restored", declared Jumoka Ogunkeyede, president of the New York-based United Committee to Save Nigeria.