After the outrage, the action

For the Commonwealth, the Nigerian executions have changed everything, says Steve Crawshaw
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Auckland - Rarely has a country so brazenly defied the rest of the world. Even when compared with the old South Africa or Soviet Union, Nigeria's defiance of the world community, and of the Commonwealth in particular, has been in a class of its own. The execution of Ken Saro- Wiwa and eight others last week was not, in itself, unique. Plenty of regimes have, in recent years, carried out what John Major described as "judicial murder". But the timing of the Saro-Wiwa hangings made it plain that the military regime was deliberately, almost gleefully, seeking to provoke the Commonwealth.

First came the death sentences themselves on Saro-Wiwa and the others, the week before the Auckland summit. Conceivably the timing of those sentences could still be regarded as coincidental. Then came the confirmation of the sentences. This followed direct appeals by Chief Emeka Anyaoku, secretary- general of the Commonwealth and himself a former Nigerian foreign minister, and condemnation from around the world.

There could be no question that this confirmation was timed to send a blunt message to the summit leaders, who were already gathering in Auckland. "So, you don't like what we're doing? But what can you do about it? See how little we care about your useless appeals."

This thuggish response left the diplomats floundering. The protests remained muted, full of words like "dismay", with calls for "clemency". Simple outrage was not yet the order of the day.

This was partly because of a fear that too much tough talking might backfire. In addition, many countries - most notably, Britain and South Africa - genuinely seemed to believe that they still had time to deliberate. But, when Ken Wiwa, Saro-Wiwa's son, announced in Auckland on Friday afternoon that the execution squad had come to his father's jail, and had been turned away only because of a bureaucratic blip that could quickly be rectified, the previously energetic Mr Wiwa seemed to crumple, as though he knew that everything was over.

None the less, officials remained almost nonchalant, emphasising that there would be time enough, at the weekend, to discuss what to do next. They were thus not just shocked but humiliated by the news - which broke a couple of hours before they flew off next morning to their luxury, leisured retreat - that Saro-Wiwa had indeed been executed overnight, New Zealand time. When, on Saturday morning, President Mandela emerged from his hotel to deliver a brief statement, he insisted: "I think I handled it correctly. I have no regrets at all." But his weary, almost plaintive tone, as a small group of us battered him with questions, seemed to tell a different story. For a moment, as he stood on the hotel steps, the self-confident, kingly Mandela seemed to have vanished.

If there is a positive spin-off from the events of the past few days - and it is still a large if - it could be the new-found determination of the Commonwealth not to allow this to happen again.

If Saro-Wiwa were still alive today, the Commonwealth's weekend discussion of how to punish "errant states" (to use the local buzzword) would have been much more hesitant and confused. While Saro-Wiwa was still alive, the argument that badly behaved countries might be provoked into being even worse-behaved still carried weight with many delegates. Others were wary of creating a framework in which Nigeria could be punished - rightly fearing that they, too, might be vulnerable to reproach.

But the executions changed everything. Suddenly, there was nothing more to lose. There were no longer "hostages", to quote one Commonwealth official's word. And there was offended dignity to be recovered.

In his opening speech on Friday, Chief Anyaoku had described the Harare declaration of 1991, which emphasised the importance of democracy and human rights, as "our guiding compass". That declaration now seemed genuinely relevant.

Thus Commonwealth leaders were spurred into quickly agreeing yesterday's guide on How to Kick Non-Democrats into Line - which provides for what officials describe as "a ladder of measures", up to and including possible economic sanctions and expulsion.

On Saturday's decision to suspend Nigeria from the Commonwealth, there was just one dissenting vote - from Gambia, which itself has a military regime. The other countries' ambivalence about relying on the "guiding compass" was suddenly gone.

These events mark an extraordinary change in the nature of the Commonwealth. It used to be an organisation in which democracy almost happily cohabited with dictatorship. South Africa-bashing was an easy pastime, which everybody could safely indulge in. What member states did to their own political opponents was judged to be nobody else's business: it was impolite to comment, let alone take action.

Now, that has changed - and Nigeria, until now one of the most important countries in the Commonwealth, will be a crucial test case for how the new-style Commonwealth will operate.

Last week, critics within the Commonwealth were still arguing that by putting so much emphasis on human rights - at the expense of development issues - the Commonwealth had allowed the rich North to hijack the agenda from the impoverished South. Chief Anyaoku fiercely rejects that accusation. He has repeatedly argued that "democracy and development are two sides of the same coin". In addition, he emphasises that issues such as debt relief, development and education policy remain at the heart of the Commonwealth's concerns.

The Commonwealth has continued to expand: South Africa rejoined last year, Cameroon joined this month, and Mozambique's application will officially be approved today.

But those optimistic signals for the organisation's future remain ambiguous even now. The death of Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues showed that the organisation's failure to act boldly can be lethal for those whom the Commonwealth fails to defend. In the longer term, the failures could be lethal for the Commonwealth itself. The organisation's effectiveness will be judged on how the measures agreed yesterday are enforced in practice. Certainly there is no shortage of abuses of human rights, even now. It is worth noting, too, that the question of sanctions - in other words, a measure that would hurt the punishers, not just the punished - has scarcely been raised.

If yesterday's agreement can be made to work, then the Commonwealth could still be far from irrelevant. Equally, Britain's loss of importance within the Commonwealth is not necessarily a reason to suggest, as some critics have begun to do, that the Commonwealth is now outdated, or that Britain itself should leave.

Chief Anyaoku declared shortly before last week's executions: "No country can afford to live in isolation from the rest of the world." The Commonwealth now has the chance to show, by making its threats and its actions against Nigeria's military rulers consistent with its rhetoric, that it can make that statement true.