High risk bid by Nigeria to prevent summit split

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Indy Politics

In a high-risk strategy, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria last night called together the leaders of African and Caribbean states attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference to try to prevent Zimbabwe dominating the meeting.

The conference starts to today and President Obasanjo, the host, is trying to sell his fellow leaders the proposal that he and Don McKinnon, the Commonwealth secretary general, should monitor Zimbabwe until the next meeting in two years.

If they accept this idea, the issue of Zimbabwe, which threatens to split the conference, will be kicked into the long grass. But the plan is risky. By calling African and Caribbean leaders it could result in the split everyone is trying to prevent, a split along racial lines. If President Obasanjo's plan goes wrong it leaves the way open for the South Africans to gather support for the lifting of Commonwealth sanctions against Robert Mugabe's regime. That would make it difficult for Tony Blair, who flew into Abuja last night. He let it be known that he could not attend the Commonwealth meeting if Mr Mugabe was there.

President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa has consistently argued that Zimbabwe should not be subject to sanctions and has said talks between Mr Mugabe's government and the opposition are making progress. The opposition denies they are happening in a meaningful way.

Mr Mbeki has the support of Namibia, Zambia and possibly one or two other African countries and , until recently President Obasanjo. But the Nigerian President flew to Zimbabwe a fortnight ago to see for himself and found there was not sufficient progress to allow him to issue an invitation to Mr Mugabe. Zimbabwe was suspended from "the Councils of the Commonwealth" after the Commonwealth election monitors declared the 2002 election unfree and unfair. President Obasanjo's interest is to use the conference as a showcase to sell Nigeria and encourage foreign investment.

He hopes to get the talking over as quickly and smoothly as possible. West African states such as Ghana and Sierra Leone will support Zimbabwe's continued suspension as will Uganda and Kenya. But African solidarity remains a potent force and even those who would vote against Zimbabwe's readmission would do so with a heavy heart. Some may even be persuaded to change their minds.

All are critical of the way Britain has handled the issue and remember that in 1966 when white-ruled Rhodesia declared independence, Britain failed to implement effective sanctions. While anti-colonial and anti imperial rhetoric has been encouraged by the American British invasion of Iraq, it does not play strongly in the Caribbean any more. People there are more concerned about economic matters.

The Nigerian leader may have called the meeting for precisely that reason. But in southern Africa, where white rule lasted 20 or 30 years more, the anti-imperial rhetoric still has an audience.

South Africa is pursuing its policy on other fronts. It is thought to be behind a move to replace Mr McKinnon with a former Sri Lankan foreign minister, Laksham Kadir Gamar. Usually secretary generals are given two terms and Mr McKinnon is only just completing his first.

This proposal also looks as if it is going nowhere since neither Mr Gamar nor the president or prime minister of Sri Lanka are attending the conference. Mr Mbeki feels that Mr McKinnon has been too close to the British in the handling of the Zimbabwe issue, among others.