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COMMONWEALTH-NIGERIA: After ‘Heinous Act’ Mandela Urges Expulsion

Kalinga Seneviratne

AUCKLAND, Nov 11 1995 (IPS) - Nelson Mandela Saturday urged the expulsion of Nigeria from the Commonwealth as the hanging of Nigerian minority rights campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa cast a shadow of gloom over this weekend’s heads of government meeting.

The South African president, who had before now canvassed “quiet diplomacy” to try to get the Nigerian regime not to go ahead with the execution of the celebrated writer, said decisive action now needed to be taken following the “heinous act”.

“In view of this latest development, the South African delegation at the Commonwealth conference will recommend the expulsion of Nigeria from the Commonwealth pending the installation of a democratic government,” Mandela said in a press statement issued Saturday.

Other leaders attending the November 10-13 biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Auckland said they would support Mandela’s call. A decision on the issue is expected to be made on Sunday.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, 54, and eight colleagues of the non-violent Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), were hung Friday in a prison in Portharcourt, the capital of the oil-rich Rivers state.

The nine had been found guilty by separate military tribunals of the murder in May last year, of four Ogoni moderate leaders, who died during an angry mob protest.

They were sentenced to death at the end of October and despite international condemnation of the entire procedure, the ruling was on Wednesday upheld by the Provisional Ruling Council, Nigeria’s highest decision-making body.

Human rights activists said the trial was politically motivated stemming from MOSOP’s lead in the fight by the 500,000-strong minority ethnic group against the environmental damage caused by oil companies drilling in their region. MOSOP demanded greater autonomy and compensation from the federal government.

Human rights campaigners and the son of the writer, Ken Saro- Wiwa Jnr had traveled to Auckland to lobby the Commonwealth leaders to take urgent steps to bring pressure on the Nigerian military regime not to carry out the executions.

Ken Saro-Wiwa jnr, who left here for London Saturday, had on Friday warned that time was running out.

In particular, they said the “moral authority” of Mandela — a political prisoner for 27 years — demanded that the South African president speak out against the Nigerian authorities, and use his political weight to try to secure the release of Saro-Wiwa.

They criticised Mandela’s recommended “quiet diplomacy” call, and on Saturday said the South African president has spoken “too late”.

“This is what we wanted in the first place from President Mandela, but its too late now,” said Chukwuma Innocent of the Civil Liberties Organisation of Nigeria.

The non-governmental group, which came here specifically to try to get the Commonwealth leaders to bring pressure on the Nigerian authorities, had on Friday written a letter to Mandela calling on the South African president to publicly condemn the Nigerian regime’s actions.

But Mandela defended his efforts at “quiet diplomacy”, adding that he had done all he could to try to resolve the situation. “My conscience is therefore clear in taking this action (the call for Nigeria’s expulsion) because I have done everything possible.”

“This heinous act by the Nigerian authorities flies in the face of appeals by the international community for a stay of execution,” Mandela said in the press statement.

The mood was sombre here Saturday.

Mandela, Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe and Namibian President Sa Nujoma all turned up late for a formal lunch in Queenstown where the leaders are gathered for a scheduled retreat. Commonwealth Secretary General Emeka Anyaoku, himself a Nigerian, skipped the reception altogether.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien confirmed that the meeting had sent an urgent appeal to Nigerian strongman, General Sani Abacha asking for a stay of execution for Saro-Wiwa, but “he did not even pay any attention to it”.

The majority of Commonwealth countries now support the expulsion of Nigeria from the 52-nation body politic, he added.

The leaders are reported to have canceled scheduled recreational activities for Saturday to discuss Mandela’s proposal.

“It seems to me that this proposition of Mr. Mandela’s will be supported by virtually everybody,” Chretien told reporters. “I expect that the countries will expel or suspend (Nigeria) until democracy returns to Nigeria, the present government.”

Along with Chretien, British Prime Minister John Major and Antiguan Prime Minister Lester Bird, have already publicly lent their support to Mandela’s call.

A Commonwealth secretariat spokesman said a formal decision should be announced Sunday after the leaders agree on what action would be taken and a formula worked out for the suspension of expulsion of member countries.

The Commonwealth is made up of a grouping of nations that were either former colonies or dependencies of Britain, or remain part of the British empire.

The former Apartheid regime in South Africa, faced with effective expulsion because of its racist policies, withdrew from the body politic in 1961, but was readmitted after last year’s democratic vote that saw Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party gain power.

The secretariat spokesman explained that until now there is no formal mechanism for expelling or suspending a member, but the Commonwealth leaders could create such a mechanism at the current meeting.

Such a mechanism would be in keeping with the 1991 Harare Declaration which requires members to recognise and respect basic human rights and democratic principles.

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