The Commonwealth summit was thrown into turmoil by news that the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others had been executed in 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 executions were carried out early this morning, New Zealand time, hours before government leaders were due to fly off for a weekend retreat at which they would consider the question of Saro-Wiwa at their leisure. Yesterday's speakers at the opening day of the conference - in other words, the day before the execution - did not name Nigeria. Everybody had tiptoed around the subject, arguing privately that upfront threats against the military regime would backfire.
Commonwealth leaders had postponed discussion of Nigerian abuses of human rights (under the catch-all phrase of "good government") until the weekend. That now seems to have been a monstrous misjudgement. The almost cosy discussions 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, son of the dead man, had repeatedly begged the leaders in Auckland to do more. He and his supporters announced yesterday in Auckland that an execution squad had come to the jail and been turned away because of a bureaucratic detail. The implication was clear: the squad would return once the military paperwork was in order. But officials in effect pooh- poohed his concerns, suggesting the whole story was implausible.
First reactions to the execution were of simple shock. A Commonwealth spokesman expressed "outrage and horror". But he rejected any suggestion that the Commonwealth had allowed itself to be wrong-footed: "Commonwealth leaders have done their utmost - both privately and publicly."
Mr 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.
It was obvious in recent days that many Commonwealth countries were unwilling to play hardball with the Nigerian regime. It is unclear to what extent that will now change.
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 even expulsion - both of which seemed unlikely, until the news broke.Reuse content