Behind the scenes at the Commonwealth: racial rifts that could ruin the Queen's vision of unity

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Indy Politics

Nigerians, according to a recent edition of the New Scientist are the happiest people in the world. That was not the impression that Francis and Floris gave as the Queen, leading the bickering heads of the 54 nation Commonwealth, arrived in their country yesterday.

"If I meet the Queen tomorrow I will tell the truth. I will tell her how tough life is here, how we struggle to survive and have no money."

So spoke Francis, a barber standing under a newly set up awning in a strange little market in the court yard of the administrative offices of New Karu, a sprawling shanty just outside the capital Abuja.

The Queen, who will tomorrow open the three day Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is coming to New Karu a village built by the BBC and the Department for International Development (Dfid), as a set for a radio soap opera called Voices to run for the next three years. The show apparently needs "realistic" sounds from a typical African village market as background to a series that looks like becoming Ambridge in Africa.

Amid often gratuitously violent security, the Queen will be visiting this showpiece which everyone is anxious to point out is not a Potemkin village created to deceive her into believing she is meeting real Nigerians.

Until the scripts are heard it will be impossible to judge how realistic it will be but at the moment it looks an artificial, if colourful photo opportunity that will portray the Queen in a dream of happy clappy Africa.

If disharmony and rancour are missing at New Karu, they will be in plentiful supply at the Commonwealth meeting.

The Commonwealth is essentially a nice club where countries get to meet and discuss world issues or local issues with their counterparts from powerful G8 countries. It has no power so no one cares enough to push issues.

At this meeting however a dangerous rift is opening up between the "Old white Commonwealth" of New Zealand, Canada, Britain and Australia and the African nations. The lines are not clearly drawn as yet but one wrong word from either side could lead to a split which would divide it between poor African countries and rich, mainly white ones.

Zimbabwe lies at the heart of the most difficult issues. The Commonwealth delegated Nigeria, Australia and South Africa to decide what to do in the lead up to last year's election but their decision was tied solely to the report of the Commonwealth Election Monitors' report.

The report declared the election neither free nor fair, so despite deep misgivings, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria had to vote for suspension.

At the follow up meeting this year both were in favour of lifting the suspension and re-admitting Zimbabwe but they had to reach a consensus and Prime Minister John Howard of Australia wanted Zimbabwe's suspension maintained. Frustrated again they had to accept it and Mr Mugabe was not invited to Abuja.

Many African leaders, particularly Mr Mbeki of South Africa, are angry at the way Zimbabwe has been handled by the Commonwealth. They recall that in 1966 Britain would not impose real sanctions on white-ruled Rhodesia after it declared independence.

Yet now Britain has played a big role in the suspension of Zimbabwe. One adviser to President Obasanjo said: "Mugabe may have a bad human rights record but we feel Britain is using this as an excuse.

"We Africans think the real reason is that they want to punish Mugabe for taking the land from the whites. There is also a feeling that Britain can do what it wants without ever consulting us whereas we Africans have to almost ask permission." The Africans are outraged that Australia and Britain have meanwhile pushed for the re-admission of Pakistan, even though it has a military government.

They point out that the Commonwealth has banned military dictatorships and Britain has constantly decried military rule in Africa but now supports it in Pakistan. They have angrily refused to consider it.

Zimbabwe lies behind another issue too. The Africanist camp, led by the South Africans want to punish the Commonwealth by replacing Don McKinnon as Secretary General.

They have persuaded Sri Lanka to put forward a candidate, Laksham Kadir Gamar, a former foreign minister to replace Mr McKinnon after one term.

Secretary Generals of the Commonwealth have usually served two terms. It is unlikely to come to a vote and Nigeria as host will remain neutral but the move in itself is another diplomatic jab in the eye for Britain and Australia.

As a quarter of the world's leaders began arriving in Nigeria yesterday, Floris sat feeding a baby. She had bowls of smoked fish heads and beans on a table.

She too said she would tell the Queen that things were bad in Nigeria, worse now than they were under military rule. In one corner of the courtyard a teacher taught a row of neat children sitting on a low bench. In the other corner in an open bar a furious argument was going on about how HIV can be passed on.

Traders who work in the local market have been brought in with their wares to man the spanking new stalls while Nigerian actors play the main roles.

Promises have been made but all of them were worried about how much they would be paid. Meanwhile they watched warily the gangs of State Security Police and bright eyed workers for Dfid who bounced around the site making last minute adjustments.

These aid workers believeVoices, will make a breakthrough in bringing simple messages about rights, education, health and other topical issues to the masses.

If the grumbles of Francis and Floris do not puncture that dream, the Queen might see more of a real market in Africa if she turned off on the way back to Abuja and visited Old Karu market. Unlike the shiny new black road that sweeps to New Karu, old Karu's road is a lumpy track, more pothole than road with a few bumps that could rip your sump off.

Waiting to get a tyre fixed the things that the New Karu market lacked came into sharp focus; the noisome open sewer oozing along the roadside, the thick dust churned up by passing trucks and the smoke from scores of little taxi motorbikes, the heaps of worn out broken metalwork, the smouldering piles of rubbish on street corners and everywhere the litter of plastic and paper.

Above all the shop signs. New Karu has none of those ecstatic shop names through which Africa expresses its boundless optimism that reaches out of the poverty: Happy Stationery, Iron Must Obey Construction Company, Divine Light Electronics, The Ultimate Kitchen and Bible School, Perseverance Dental Practitioners and The Dawn of a Brighter Day Beauty Salon.

On the eve of the summit Africa's leaders are also displaying little good will.

The dangers of division have threatened the Commonwealth in the past, most notably during Mrs Thatcher's time as Prime Minister when she openly defended South Africa from sanctions and attacked the African National Congress as "terrorist".

This time less is at stake but there is also less of a feeling that preserving the apparent harmony of the Commonwealth is all important. The Africans are on the warpath.



The country was suspended from the Commonwealth last year after it was deemed that President Robert Mugabe rigged his re-election vote. Despite not receiving an invitation, Mr Mugabe said he expected to attend, raising the threat of a boycott by Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, who are vocal opponents of Mr Mugabe's land reform policies and human rights abuses. The possibility of lifting Zimbabwe's suspension will be a matter of heated debate.


Sri Lanka's decision to nominate Lakshman Kadirgamar, the country's former foreign minister, to run for the position of Commonwealth Secretary General, currently held by New Zealander Don McKinnon, has taken member states by surprise. Sri Lanka was approached by some African countries displeased with McKinnon's decision to retain the suspension on Zimbabwe. Australia, Canada, Britain and New Zealand have already indicated they are supporting Mckinnon.


Hosts Nigeria have been accused of gross violation of human rights. Human Rights Watch published findings to coincide with the summit accusing the Lagos government of responsibility for the killing, torture and harassment of its critics over the past two years. For a nation whose return to the fold is less than four years old the report is an embarrassment to President Obasanjo, who has fought hard to put the country back on the world stage.


However unconcerned about its possible readmission Pakistan may officially appear to be, Islamabad claims that its exclusion from the Commonwealth on the ground that it ceased being a democracy is unjustified. The UK and Australia have pushed for letting Pakistan back in, but African countries have rejected the idea, and with India sitting on an eight-member ministerial group that is looking at the progress Pakistan has made, the issue continues to be thorny.