Britain heads for clash with Nigeria

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The Independent Online
Nigeria is furious, but to no avail. Commonwealth ministers gathered in London yesterday to hear a string of opposition and human rights groups call for tougher action against the Nigerian regime - including possible expulsion from the Commonwealth.

Ken Wiwa, son of the executed activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, argued: "The Nigerian authorities are very worried about the effect of expulsion on their image, and at home. The effect would be stunning." Kayode Fayemi, of the United Democratic Front, an opposition umbrella group, said it was important to take tough measures: "It's the choice between chaos and catastrophe."

Britain had made all the right noises, Mr Fayemi said. "The platitudes have been good, the statements have been brilliant. Now, they must follow that up with action."

In 1995, Commonwealth leaders appeared ready to hit Nigeria hard after the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Nigeria's membership was promptly suspended, amid warnings that, unless Nigeria took steps to clean up its democratic act, it faced expulsion. Two years on, little has changed.

Nigeria's Foreign Minister, Tom Akimi, complained bitterly this week about the ministerial meeting, declaring: "The hostile attitude and the use of bodies like CMAG [Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group] contains the seeds of the future disintegration of the Commonwealth." But democracy activists insist that the Nigerian anger is in itself an indication that the government is getting worried, and that this is therefore a good moment to press the advantage home. In the words of Mr Wiwa: "The whole thing boils down to the credibility of the Commonwealth."

The ministerial group, which finishes its deliberations today, is in advance of a final ministerial meeting in September, which will make recommendations for action to a Commonwealth summit to be hosted by Britain in Edinburgh in October.

Britain has been broadly sympathetic to tougher action. Canada has been keenest to take a lead. Within the Commonwealth, Zimbabwe, which chairs the ministerial group, has been notably reluctant to rock the regional boat.

The Nigerian opposition expresses satisfaction at the change of tone in Whitehall since the elections. The new government has been more explicit in its support for the opponents of General Sani Abacha's regime than the Conservative government ever was.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, argued this month: "What holds Nigeria back is a corrupt regime and very poor standards of democratic government."

Tony Lloyd, Foreign Office minister with responsibility for Africa, has made it clear that Britain is in no mood to back down. In advance of yesterday's meeting, he spoke to the Financial Times of the "flawed" transition from military to civilian rule. He warned of an electoral system which would allow "the transition of General Abacha to President Abacha. We cannot allow that."