Commonwealth presses Nigeria over democracy

David Usborne@dusborne
Sunday 29 September 1996 23:02

Foreign Ministers of the Commonwealth agreed yesterday to dispatch a ministerial fact-finding mission to Nigeria as soon as possible to assess progress in its transition from a military dictatorship to democracy and to investigate the plight of political prisoners still incarcerated in its jails.

The move is meant as a signal of the continuing international concern over the effects of military rule in the West African state in the wake of the execution last November of the author Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other minority-rights activists. It falls far short, however, of the much stronger measures against Nigeria that some Commonwealth countries, notably Canada, had been advocating.

There is, meanwhile, considerable doubt as to the likely usefulness of such a mission because Nigeria has vowed to set strict conditions on it, particularly as regards whom its members might see. In a statement, ministers said the visit would happen at "the earliest possible date convenient to all parties".

The decision to send a mission, regardless of the Nigerian restrictions, emerged from a special meeting in New York of ministers of the eight-country Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group on Nigeria. The group was established to consider the future status of Nigeria after the suspension of its membership of the Commonwealth last November following the political executions.

The meeting, attended for Britain by the Overseas Development Minister, Baroness Chalker of Wallasey, came against a background of fractious disagreement within the Commonwealth on how to handle Nigeria.

Until yesterday, the group had held back from agreeing to send the mission precisely because of the conditions that Nigeria was imposing.

Ministers conceded yesterday that Nigeria had still not offered any guarantees over access for the mission. Members will be particularly anxious to interview at least 12 opponents of the military regime, including Moshood Abiola, the winner of the 1993 presidential election, the former president Olusegun Obasanjo, and opposition activist, Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti.

Baroness Chalker insisted, however, that the mission would be worthwhile. "We are going to ask them what they are doing," she said. When asked by reporters whether the Commonwealth had caved in to Nigeria by accepting conditions on the visit, she retorted: "No way. If you wait for guarantees, you won't achieve anything".

Among Commonwealth countries, Canada has been particularly outspoken in urging a strong line on Nigeria. The Canadian Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy, caused an open rift several days ago when he denounced as "appeasers" some of his colleagues in the Action Group. The countries in the group are Britain, Canada, Jamaica, Ghana, Malaysia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and New Zealand.

Most observers agree, however, that only an oil embargo would seriously capture Nigeria's attention. The attitude of the US would be crucial, because some 40 per cent of American oil imports are from Nigerian wells. Given the importance of Nigerian supplies, coupled with ongoing tensions in the Middle East, any chance of a US oil embargo against the country would seem to be slim indeed.

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