African nominations kick off the selection of new UN chief

Four African states last night nominated their own candidates for the post of United Nations Secretary-General after becoming convinced that Boutros Boutros- Ghali now has no hope of a second term because of the resolute opposition of the United States.

The nominations by Ghana, Mauritania, Niger and Ivory Coast, the first, mean that the process of choosing a new secretary general - akin to a high-stakes poker game - can at last begin in earnest. Concern has been deepening at the UN that unless the deadlock is overcome quickly, the council may fail to settle on a replacement before the month's end when Mr Boutros-Ghali's term expires.

There is also barely disguised anxiety, not least in the European missions here, that the UN, under pressure from the clock and from the US, may be on course to select a new secretary-general who may be considerably less effective or competent that Mr Boutros-Ghali. That could be the ironic and entirely counterproductive result of America's determination to ditch the Egyptian, some diplomats say.

Britain, which has been playing a fairly passive game until now, is especially unsettled. As one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, Britain sees the UN as the last world institution where it has pre-eminent influence. It has been dismayed by the recent slide in the UN's fortunes and standing and believes that its hopes for renewal are linked to finding a first-class leader.

It was a bad week for Mr Boutros-Ghali, who announced that he was "suspending" his candidacy, but keeping himself in reserve in case no agreement is reached on someone else. The choice of Madeleine Albright, US ambassador to the UN, as US Secretary of State, can hardly help him.

The Africans, who by UN tradition can expect to have one of their own as secretary-general for the next five years, had been under intense pressure from the US and Britain to accept the inevitability of Mr Boutros-Ghali's fate and come up with alternative names. France, which appears increasingly to be holding the losing hand, had hoped to pressure the Africans to stick by him. Divisions were still visible at a French-African summit in Burkina Faso which ended yesterday, attended by African heads of state and President Jacques Chirac. The President of Burkino Faso, Blaise Campaore, spoke out again for Mr Boutros-Ghali. President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, by contrast, is said to be backing Tanzania's Salim Salim, the Secretary- General of the Organisation of African Unity.

Of all the African names being put forward, the most credible may be that of Kofi Annan. An urbane and soft-spoken Ghanaian with a Swedish wife, he is at present in charge of peace-keeping in the UN Secretariat. He is widely liked within the UN and is thought to have the backing of the US. Because of that American support, he is vulnerable, however, to a veto from France.

The other Africans nominated included Ahmedou Ould Abdallah of Mauritania, a former UN special representative in Burundi; the former prime minister of Niger, Hamid Algabid, Secretary General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and the Foreign Minister of Ivory Coast, Amara Essy.

If consensus does not build quickly around an African, Britain will push for candidates from other regions to be considered, with Mrs Sadako Ogata, of Japan, who heads the UN High Commission for Refugees, a strong possible contender.

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