Leaders soft-pedal over Nigeria move to execute writer

Commonwealth summit: Pressure for expulsion fades as Britain and South Africa favour dialogue with junta rather than sanctions
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The Independent Online



Nigeria was engulfed by protests yesterday after the military regime's confirmation of death sentences on the playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists, but there was little sign of a concerted response from Commonwealth heads of government who begin their summit in New Zealand today.

Nigerian human rights groups urged the world to speak out as General Sani Abacha's government denied rumours in Lagos yesterday that the nine had already been executed.

"The haste with which the sentences were passed shows they are determined to shed blood," said the president of Nigeria's Civil Liberties Organisation, Ayo Obe. Mr Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues, who campaigned for environmental and minority rights in the south-eastern region of Ogoniland, were convicted of the murders of four Ogoni leaders in what has been described as a politically motivated trial.

The US, France and the Organisation of African Unity all called for the sentences to be commuted, and the Foreign Office summoned Nigeria's deputy high commissioner in London to deliver the same message. "[This] represents a major step backwards following a patently flawed judicial process," the Foreign Office said. Shell oil company, whose operations in Ogoniland were the target of local protests, also appealed for Mr Saro-Wiwa to be spared, but a spokesman for the military council, Brigadier-General Sam Malu, ruled out clemency.

The focus of demands for action to be taken against Nigeria was the Commonwealth summit in Auckland. The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, himself a Nigerian, expressed "profound dismay", saying: "To proceed with this sentence will be seen as an act of defiance in the face of world opinion." The host, New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, said it would be "quite appalling" if Nigeria flouted the Commonwealth's commitment to human rights by carrying out the sentences.

But several leaders, including Mr Bolger, South Africa's President, Nelson Mandela, and the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, spoke out against suspending Nigeria or imposing sanctions. Campaigners were particularly disappointed by Mr Mandela, who arrived in Auckland yesterday. While Zimbabwe's President, Robert Mugabe, said the verdict "is shocking to everybody" and said excluding Nigeria from the Commonwealth would be discussed, Mr Mandela said he favoured dialogue as a means to put pressure on General Abacha's government.

British officials said it was necessary to "tread very carefully", because of the danger that tough talk might backfire.

General Abacha pulled out of coming to the conference at the last moment. The Nigerian delegation is led instead by the the Foreign Minister, Chief Tom Ikimi.

Mr Anyaoku said it was essential for procedures to be agreed, "to decide what to do in such situations - that is very important for the credibility of the Commonwealth". Already in danger of being written off as a talking-shop, the organisation risks further damage to its credibility if it fails to respond to the flouting of human rights in Nigeria.