Summit sends tough message to `bad boys'

Commonwealth meeting: Angry Nigeria insists it is loyal to the democratic principles of Harare declaration
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The Independent Online
STEVE CRAWSHAW

Auckland

The roller-coaster Commonwealth summit in Auckland - one of the most dramatic in recent years - ended yesterday with claims by Commonwealth leaders that the decisions taken would prove to be "historic".

The result was both a fudge and a great leap forward. On the half-full versus half-empty principle, optimists and pessimists could plausibly interpret the outcome in opposite ways.

The final communique incorporates the statement suspending Nigeria, with threatened expulsion if it does not mend its ways within two years. It also incorporates the Millbrook Programme, agreed at the weekend, which establishes a framework for ensuring that member states conform to certain basic norms. The programme sets out options for helping, persuading and punishing countries that fail to meet the required standards.

All of which is more dramatic than anything the Commonwealth has achieved before. It was the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria that shocked the leaders out of their half-complacency. Suddenly, action seemed essential as never before.

Yet the action against Nigeria is far less than Nigerian human rights activists and others would like to see. They are calling for sanctions or an oil embargo, as a punishment for the hanging last week of Saro- Wiwa and eight others on apparently trumped-up charges of murder, and for other abuses of human rights. An oil embargo would hit Nigeria immediately, and hard - but would also affect the commercial interests of those imposing the embargo.

None the less, Nigeria's reaction to the suspension is significant in terms of assessing the effectiveness of the Commonwealth action. The Nigerian Foreign Minister, Chief Tom Ikimi, complained that the suspension was based on unsubstantiated media reports about the executions (implying the extraordinary possibility that Saro-Wiwa and the others might still be alive). Above all, he insisted that the "flexible and pragmatic character of the Commonwealth relationship has been gravely and ominously altered".

Mr Ikimi insisted that the Nigerian military regime is loyal to the Harare declaration of 1991 which emphasised the importance of democracy and human rights. But, he added: "In our view they [the Harare principles] were not meant to become legalistic provisions, giving unlimited mandate for interference in the internal affairs of Commonwealth countries."

His angry complaints suggested that Nigeria may be rattled by the almost unanimous response to Nigeria's defiance of the Commonwealth (the only dissenting vote was from Gambia, which itself has a military regime).

He appeared to criticise South Africa and its neighbours and to draw a line between the interests of southern Africa and the rest of the continent. President Nelson Mandela has been sharply critical of Nigeria and played a leading role in its suspension. He, John Major, and the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, sat together on the flight to the weekend retreat, and in effect stitched up a deal for the proposed suspension of Nigeria during the flight.

In one respect at least, Mr Ikimi scored a hit with yesterday's declaration. With reference to proposals to send an eminent persons' group to Nigeria, he suggested that, "for the integrity and credibility of such a group", its members should be drawn from countries where there are no political prisoners, where opposition leaders are not in jail and where press freedom is unfettered. As Mr Ikimi well knew, many of the other 52 members of the Commonwealth would not meet these criteria.

The most important feature of the Millbrook declaration is the signal it sends: at least in theory, bad-boy behaviour will no longer be permitted. Officials were optimistic yesterday that abusers of democracy, including Gambia and Sierra Leone, would get the message: "You'll see them at the next ... meeting with democratic governments."

It was confirmed yesterday that a standing action group will be formed to deal with "serious or persistent violations" of the Harare principles.

News analysis, page 15

Comment, page 17

Envoys recalled

Nigeria yesterday recalled its envoys from abroad, retaliating for similar action taken by several countries in protest at the hangings of nine minority rights activists, Reuter reports.

South Africa meanwhile withdrew an invitation to Nigeria to take part in a four-nation African soccer tournament next week and the ruling African National Congress called an urgent meeting with its trade union and political allies for today to discuss action against Nigeria.

In Hamburg protesters erected a gallows outside Shell oil's German headquarters and accused it of sharing blame for the executions.

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