Enthusiasm wanes for action against Nigeria Ministers in dilemma over punishing Nigeria

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A group of Commonwealth foreign ministers meets in London today to decide on further action to force Nigeria into the democratic fold. But it is unclear if the meeting will be able to agree on much more than a few stern words, while the ministers - who met for a working dinner last night - take the opportunity of some last-minute Christmas shopping in London.

Last month, in the immediate wake of the execution of the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others, indignant Commonwealth leaders promptly suspended Nigeria from membership. However, tempers have cooled. There now seems to be little enthusiasm for putting Nigeria under pressure.

While riot police in Lagos yesterday used tear gas against demonstrators who had gathered for a banned meeting, demanding democracy, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, the Commonwealth secretary-general, spoke of a twin-track approach. On the one hand, he said, Nigeria must be "urged" and "helped" to live up to its democratic commitments under the terms of the Harare declaration of 1993. On the other hand, the foreign ministers would consider ways in which the pressures on the Nigerian military regime could be "sustained and possibly tightened".

Commonwealth countries are deeply divided about what, if anything, to do next. South Africa, which initially took a softly-softly approach on Nigeria, is now at the forefront of calls for tougher action, including a possible oil embargo. Britain, another member of the eight-country group, is unwilling to consider an oil embargo or other trade sanctions, arguing that ordinary people will be hurt most. Group members Malaysia and Ghana both abstained at a recent United Nations vote criticising Nigeria.

Some countries fear that the group might be (in the words of one official) "a forerunner of a new Star Chamber" which could take punitive action against any non-democratic member states. Hence the reluctance to move too hard, too fast.

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday that Nigeria's suspension was a "watershed" for the Commonwealth. Addressing the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, he talked of the "universal standards" that the Commonwealth was seeking to impose. But he argued it does not have a unique role to play.

"It can apply pressure, but its position is no different to that of any other international organisation. At the end of the day, change in internal matters will only come about when the government of the country concerned is prepared to respond."