NZ braced for anti-Major protests

Commonwealth summit: Nigeria and Britain in villains' roles, while red carpet awaits Mandela
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The Independent Online


Things are so well organised here in the run-up to this week's Commonwealth conference that even the demonstrators have been holding rehearsals. In advance of expected clashes with police this week, a core group of protesters has been practising how to resist arrest.

Officially, everything is perfect. "The city of Auckland welcomes delegates to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting" say banners stretched across the streets.

The biennial Commonwealth conference (abbreviated to Chogm) begins officially on Friday and the authorities are determined to ensure everything goes smoothly.

This is the biggest international political conference New Zealand has held. Forty of the 52 Commonwealth leaders will be here. The Queen arrived last week and arrived in the city yesterday. John Major, Nelson Mandela and the Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, will also have an official bilateral programme, as part of their stay.

For Mr Major, tomorrow's meeting with the host, Jim Bolger, will be less relaxed than it would normally be. Britain is the target of anger over its perceived softness on France regarding nuclear testing..

A rally has been called for tomorrow under the rallying-cry "Major Outrage" in Queen Elizabeth Square. Demonstrations are likely to continue during the conference.

Inside the conference hall, Nigeria will be the main target because of the death sentence passed last week on the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, apparently on trumped-up charges. His son, also named Ken, arrived in Auckland yesterday to press for sanctions. For the moment, the Nigerian military leader, General Sani Abacha, is still due to turn up in Auckland but Commonwealth officials suggest a cancellation is on the cards. If General Abacha comes, he will provide a lightning-rod for the entire conference.

President Mandela, attending his first Commonwealth conference, is likely to be the hero of the hour. He is due to speak at the opening session and other countries may look to South Africa for moral leadership of the Commonwealth itself.

Although parts of the city will be closed off during the conference, many Aucklanders seem pleased, despite the inconveniences, that the summit is being held here. "It's nice that people are looking at us, from all over the world," one said.

But there are dissenting voices. The New Zealand Herald complained about the arrangements. "Commonwealth heads evidently cannot be safely conveyed a few blocks in normal traffic," it said. "Inner-city streets will be cleared, supposedly for security, but more than likely so that the guests may be driven in the grandeur they have come to expect. It may be the Chogm style. But it is not the New Zealand way."

After the plenary sessions, the leaders will head for a "retreat" to hammer out the communique. Nigeria's abuses of human rights must be addressed. Sanctions seem unlikely, as the Commonwealth prefers persuasion to threats, but the course of action will be influenced by what Nigeria says in the next few days. The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku (himselfa Nigerian) has made it clear he wishes the conference to send a tough message to Nigeria.