Commonwealth is thrown into turmoil

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The Independent Online


The Commonwealth summit was thrown into turmoil by the news that the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others had been executed, in absolute defiance of the Commonwealth itself. Never, perhaps, in the history of the organisation has it seemed so powerless and futile at such a crucial juncture.

The execution took place in the early hours of the morning, New Zealand time, just hours before government leaders were due to fly off for a weekend retreat at which they would consider the question of Ken Saro-Wiwa at their leisure.

Yesterday's speakers at the opening day of the conference did not mention Nigeria by name. Everybody had tiptoed carefully around the subject, arguing privately that full-frontal threats against the military regime would backfire.

Commonwealth leaders had postponed discussion of Nigerian abuses of human rights until the weekend. That now seems to have been a monstrous misjudgement. The almost cosy discussions that leaders had planned to have will now seem bloodstained and almost irrelevant.

President Nelson Mandela of South Africa avoided delivering a strong message which others might have followed. Britain, too, repeatedly argued that it would make no sense to wield the big stick too obviously, especially at an early stage.

Ken Wiwa, the son of the dead man, had repeatedly begged the government leaders in Auckland to do more.

He and his supporters announced yesterday in Auckland that a government execution squad had come to the jail and had been turned away because of a bureaucratic detail. The implication was clear: the squad would return once the paperwork had been put in order. But officials in effect pooh- poohed his concerns, suggesting that the whole story was implausible.

First reactions were of simple shock. A Commonwealth spokesman expressed "outrage and horror", but he rejected any suggestion that the Commonwealth had allowed itself to be wrongfooted. "Commonwealth leaders have done their utmost - both privately and publicly."

Ken Wiwa and his team had checked out of their hotel, possibly to go to Queenstown, the South Island venue of the retreat, where they had been planning to lobby the summit leaders if- as was the case - the Commonwealth failed to make an agreed statement on the Nigerian situation before leaving Auckland. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian writer who had also lobbied on behalf of Mr Saro-Wiwa, had also left his hotel.

It is unclear what the leaders will now do. There is no question that Nigeria has openly defied the Commonwealth and everything it stands for. It must now certainly face the possibility of sanctions, or expulsion.

The secretary-general of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, is likely to be most devastated of all. He is a former Nigerian foreign minister, and had made it plain that he was looking for very strong action to come out of the Commonwealth.

Quite apart from the personal tragedies involved, the Commonwealth will find it very difficult to get to its feet again, after such a blow.

Leaders have been sounding off this week about the importance of the Harare declaration of 1991, which emphasises the importance of human rights. But Commonwealth leaders may now be perceived to have done nothing substantial to try to enforce that declaration.

The timing of both the confirmation of the sentence against Mr Saro-Wiwa, and the execution itself, were clearly intended as a direct snub to the authority of the Commonwealth - a call, in a sense, for the organisation to do its worst.

It seemed that a number of African countries were still less than enthusiastic about the prospect of "errant states" (to use the official phrase) being severely taken to task, for failing to meet the democratic obligations of the Harare declaration.