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.

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