Shadow of the gallows over future of the club

Nelson Mandela acted with the aplomb of a frightened rabbit

IT WAS a strange sight. Outside the Aotea Centre - a theatre and concert hall in the centre of Auckland, now occupied by the largest international summit that New Zealand has ever seen - dozens of grandees waited in a patient crowd, looking like suited businessmen (plus a few military types, dripping in gold braid) waiting at an over-popular taxi rank. For most of the government leaders, and for their anxious officials, it was a game of Spot the Flag, as they waited for the car that would whisk the leader safely to the luxury hotel.

Typical snatches of conversation, in this upmarket queue: "We have to wait for our motorcade"; (to a security hulk) "Hullo, we thought we'd given you the slip"; "Here is your invitation for the Queen tonight; we'll meet you at the back door of the hotel." At a given moment, officials tried to steer their bosses down the steps, for the right car to stop at the right moment in the right place for the appropriate grandee.

Organised chaos, oozing protocol, but empty of any substantial sense of purpose. That was the overwhelming sense, at the end of the fateful opening day of the Commonwealth summit. The heads of government chatted, frowned and smiled - and apparently failed to see the urgency of their own agenda.

Earlier that afternoon, things had reached a new critical point, regarding the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others who had been condemned to death by the Nigerian military regime. But the politicians looked the other way. Then, just a couple of hours before the leaders flew out of Auckland yesterday morning (Friday evening, London time) for their luxury weekend retreat, the shock announcement came. Mr Saro-Wiwa and the other eight had been executed, while the politicians in Auckland were banqueting. The softly-softly tactics had been hideously misguided.

What was inappropriate when nine men were about to be killed suddenly became appropriate, now that they were dead. John Major, Nelson Mandela, and other Commonwealth leaders started talking tough. Yesterday evening, Commonwealth leaders agreed to "suspend" Nigeria from membership.

Nigeria's blatant, lethal defiance of the Commonwealth's authority marks a record low for the organisation. On Friday, its leaders were still boasting about South Africa's renewed membership of the Commonwealth. Cameroon received a big round of applause, too, as the newest member of the club, thus bearing witness to the continued relevance of the Commonwealth itself. Delegates found on their desks, too, the application by Mozambique to join. But as the leaders gathered at the luxury retreat of Millbrook, amid spectacular mountain scenery near Queenstown, South Island, it was clear that the organisation itself was in crisis. Perhaps the executions will play a galvanising role. But there is still room for fudge. Sanctions, a matter for individual countries, have scarcely been discussed.

Whatever happens next, this is a turning-point. Last week, government leaders ducked and weaved, to avoid putting Nigeria on the spot. That will have to change - not just in the case of Nigeria, but elsewhere too.

The expulsion of Nigeria from the Commonwealth will follow the suspension if there is insufficient progress towards democracy "within a time frame to be stipulated". But the loss of Nigeria would be a severe blow to the status of the Commonwealth, since it was always a key player. By a bitter irony, the current Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, is himself Nigerian.

Britain's role within the Commonwealth has also changed, for all time. The Queen remains unchanging in her mother-confessor role. But, the Queen apart, Britain is no longer central. When Margaret Thatcher put herself in a minority of one in the Commonwealth in the 1980s, on the question of South African sanctions, that fact still had shock value.

Now, the shock has long gone. Britain last week stood isolated on the question of nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and its support for France on the issue. Britain can insist that a matter of principle is at stake. But the perception throughout the Commonwealth is of a Britain which is ready to ignore other countries' views. Increasingly, Commonwealth countries have bilateral relationships - bypassing London. For some, too, the Commonwealth is less important than it once was. Thus, the Prime Minister of India, Narasimha Rao, announced that he could not attend the Auckland summit, because he had too little time; he did, however, have time for a trip to Burkina Faso.

South Africa, Cameroon, and Mozambique show there is also a trend in the opposite direction. But French-speaking Cameroon and Portuguese- speaking Mozambique have little interest in London (even though they, too, are ready to pay lip service to the Queen as head of the Commonwealth). Rather, their interest is in being members of a club which gives them a common agenda - for example, on development and on North-South relations.

South Africa might seem a natural leader of the new-style Commonwealth. But it has been a bad start, to put it mildly. Mr Mandela, the moral giant, behaved last week with all the aplomb of a frightened rabbit. He appeared to believe that by keeping almost silent on Nigeria, he could achieve more. In reality, the silence of Mandela may have contributed to Nigeria's perception that it could get away, literally, with murder.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee