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COMMONWEALTH-NIGERIA: Suspended With a Two-Year Stay of Expulsion

Kalinga Seneviratne

AUCKLAND, Nov 12 1995 (IPS) - Commonwealth leaders Sunday opted to suspend rather than expel Nigeria from the body, allowing for possible readmission or expulsion depending on if the oil-rich West African nation cleans up its poor human rights record.

Commonwealth Secretary General Emeka Anyaoku told reporters that Nigeria would be given two years to improve its democratic credentials before expulsion would be considered.

The suspension follows Friday’s hanging of minority rights leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight colleagues of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), who were deemed responsible by the Nigerian authorities for the deaths of four Ogoni people during angry mob protests in May 1994.

The hangings took place despite international condemnation of the trial procedures that led to the conviction of the nine at the end of October by military tribunals, and in the face of urgent appeals to the Nigerian regime for a stay of execution.

South African President Nelson Mandela, who was under pressure from human rights activists to speak out against the Nigerian military regime, reacted Saturday by calling for Nigeria’s expulsion from the Commonwealth.

Political analysts believe the reason to suspend rather than expel Nigeria, is to at least maintain a communication channel and some leverage in future diplomatic efforts to get the regime to return the West African nation to democratic government.

“The Commonwealth heads of government, with the exception of The Gambia (also run by a military regime), agreed to suspend Nigeria from membership of the Commonwealth pending the return to compliance with the principles of the Harare Commonwealth declaration,” said a statement issued Sunday.

The Commonwealth leaders, who wrap up their biennial summit in Auckland on Monday, said one step to be taken to show Nigeria’s commitment to a return to democracy would be the release of 43 political prisoners arrested in relation to an alleged coup attempt.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) also urged the release of Moshood Abiola — the millionaire business tycoon believed to have won the elections in 1993, but annulled by present regime leader Sani Abacha. Abiola faces treason charges.

“If no demonstrable progress is made toward fulfilment of these conditions within a time frame to be stipulated, Nigeria would be expelled from the association,” said the statement, read out by current chairman of the Commonwealth, New Zealand Prime Minister Jim Bolger.

Anyaoku, himself a Nigerian, later told reporters of the agreed two-year time-frame, adding that a committee would be named on Monday to monitor the Nigerian situation.

The suspension means that Nigeria will not be able to participate in any Commonwealth activities — political, economic or on the sports field.

This means the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation — the development cooperation arm of the organisation — will not carry out any work in Nigeria.

But from an economic standpoint, such measures will not have any major impact on the Nigerian regime and Nigerian human rights activists who traveled to Auckland to lobby Commonwealth leaders to take punitive action, say the next step to make would be for the international community to boycott Nigeria’s oil exports.

Oil products make up about 40 per cent of Nigeria’s exports, and according to Chukwuma Innocent of the non-governmental Civil Liberties Organisation, the millions of dollars of oil receipts go directly into the pockets of government officials.

As such, Innocent said that an oil boycott would have little negative impact on the average Nigerian.

“We therefore call on the Commonwealth to take action, including the application of comprehensive sanctions against Nigeria until it is sure of a commitment to democratic rule and respect for human rights within the shortest possible time,” he said.

Innocent, who says he will be smuggled back into Nigeria to avoid arrest, described the Nigerian regime as “shameless, callous and insensitive”, and only through strong and direct punitive measures by the international community, will it force Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha to sit up and listen.

Besides a boycott of crude oil exports, Innocent’s suggests the freezing of the regime’s foreign bank accounts littered with monies “corruptly acquired”, as well as the cancellation of all multilateral and bilateral agreements with Nigeria relating to trade, investments and debt relief.

But the civil rights campaigner told IPS he is doubtful the Commonwealth will move with the “great vigour” needed on the economic sanctions front. He said Britain had 10 billion dollars invested in Nigeria — mainly in the oil industry — and would not be keen to take such strong measures.

“Nigerian crude oil has low sulphur content which reduces pollution,” Innocent said. “Because of that it is very popular with foreign buyers and allows for a profitable business for British companies.”

Bolger acknowledged that economic sanctions against Nigeria had not been “seriously debated” by the Commonwealth leaders during their weekend treat in Queenstown.

He said such action would have various impacts within the Commonwealth. New Zealand would have nothing to lose, he explained, but other African member nations might be significantly affected.

British Prime Minister John Major refused to be drawn into debate about Britain’s position on economic sanctions.

He said the Commonwealth had no squabbles with the people of Nigeria — indicating that such measures might hurt the general population — but that it was the undemocratic practices of the military regime that were at issue.

“We are not trying to damage Nigeria. What we are trying to do is persuade Nigeria to behave in a way that the rest of the Commonwealth believes is proper,” said Major and rushed to board an airplane back to Auckland from the Queenstown retreat. “I am not going to discuss anything more on it.”

Meanwhile, Nigeria’s foreign minister Chief Tomi Ikimi, who was reported by some other international media to have left New Zealand on Saturday, was seen on local television Sunday waving to newsmen while boarding a plane in Queenstown.

Ikimi was scheduled to give a press conference at 9 p.m. (local time), but did not show, and it is not clear if the Nigerian foreign minister will be in Auckland on Monday for the final day of talks.

The Commonwealth, which before Sunday comprised 52 active members, is a grouping of nations that were either former colonies or dependencies of Britain, or remain part of the British empire.

That is however set to change with Bolger announcing Sunday that the application from Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony in southern Africa — was “warmly” accepted by the Commonwealth leaders, and its admission would be shortly announced as a “unique and special case”.

Nigeria is the first country ever to be suspended from the body although previously South Africa and Pakistan have withdrawn, while Fiji allowed its membership to lapse.

David McIntyre, an expert on Commonwealth issues, told IPS that the historic suspension of Nigeria follows the setting of new standards for membership to the body as agreed during the 1991 meeting in Zimbabwe.

“Members states are now measured against the resulting standards which were laid down and approved, and which Nigeria flagrantly violated,” said McIntyre, professor of history at Canterbury University in Christchurch.

The Harare Declaration determined that multi-party democracy, respect for the rule of law, human rights and equal opportunity, were requirements for Commonwealth membership.

“To execute the activists during the leaders’ meeting in New Zealand, was a slap in the face, and the Commonwealth had no option but to take strong action,” said McIntyre.

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