Commonwealth rivals in polite battle for dominion

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The Independent Online
A BATTLE as intense as it is polite, pitting rich white countries against the vastly poorer but far more populous states of Asia and Africa, is under way to choose the next secretary-general to lead the 54-nation Commonwealth into the new millennium.

Three months before Commonwealth heads of government gather in Durban, South Africa, to make their decision, two candidates are in the running to replace the outgoing Chief Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria: New Zealand's foreign minister Don McKinnon, the front runner, and the vastly experienced but less well-known Bangladeshi diplomat Farooq Sobhan.

For months now the two have been waging discreet but insistent campaigns, promising to breathe new life into the organisation. Mr Sobhan, a former chairman of the group of 77 developing countries at the United Nations and Bangladeshi ambassador to both India and China, tacitly concedes he is trailing in his attempt to become the first Asian secretary-general.

"My New Zealand colleague has more resources than a Bangladeshi diplomat," he said in London last week. "But the election should not exclusively be decided by who has run the better campaign. The Commonwealth's strength is its diversity, and that's what my campaign is all about."

Mr Sobhan wants to decentralise the secretariat, shifting departments out of London, and reducing the share of top jobs held by well-paid white officials. "If you're looking for a basically decorative candidate, to preside over a process of decline, then I'm not your man," he said. Alas, however, the very diversity of the club of former British colonies is working against the 58-year-old Mr Sobhan. Although Mr Sobhan is supported by the Commonwealth's Asian bloc, Mr McKinnon has the backing not only of the old white dominions of Canada and Australia, but of many Pacific and Caribbean countries highly appreciative of his work on third-world debt relief.

Under the Commonwealth's one-country, one-vote system, India - with one billion inhabitants - has just one vote, the same as a Pacific micro-state with just a few thousand. Right now, the New Zealander is reckoned to have the pledged votes of at least half the member countries.

But that could change between now and Durban. A potent weapon for Mr Sobhan could be the "Buggins's turn" principle which tends to guide how senior posts at international bodies are filled. The three previous secretary- generals have come from Canada, Guyana and now Nigeria - the old white founder member, followed by the Caribbean and Africa. Many people will now see it as the natural turn of Asia. Moreover, the recent appointment of a New Zealander, Mike Moore, to head the World Trade Organisation, could spread the feeling that a small Pacific Rim country already has its share of the top jobs.