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Monday, March 2, 1998 Published at 10:14 GMT


Nigeria under Commonwealth spotlight

Nigerian soldiers have ousted the junta in Sierra Leone but military rule continues in Nigeria

The Commonwealth Action Group of eight foreign ministers set up to deal with serious violations of democratic principles by member states is holding a two-day meeting in London to review the situation in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. This report from our Diplomatic Correspondent, Barnaby Mason.

Last October's Commonwealth summit in Edinburgh expressed concern at the Nigerian military government's continued failure to observe human rights.

Commonwealth leaders said Nigeria should remain suspended from the organisation unless there was a credible restoration of democratic rule.

[ image: Abacha: pledge to restore democracy in doubt]
Abacha: pledge to restore democracy in doubt
The Commonwealth ministerial group has been given the power to invoke a number of further sanctions to encourage a more genuine return to civilian rule.

So far it has been unwilling to take any strong action.

Many have serious doubts that the promised restoration of democracy in Nigeria by October 1 this year will be credible.

There is a widespread expectation in the country that the military leader, General Sani Abacha, will stand as a civilian candidate for president.

Several of the political parties allowed to operate have backed him.

[ image: Axworthy: wants credible restoration of democracy]
Axworthy: wants credible restoration of democracy
In advance of the London meeting, the Canadian Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy, emphasised that a return to democracy must be credible.

It had to include the release of political prisoners, the opening of the political process to all, and a return to the rule of law.

Barnaby Mason asks Canadian Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy what is the most important feature of the two-day meeting? (1'45")
The British government said the situation was worrying and unsatisfactory.

It wants the Action Group to send another mission to Nigeria and establish a set of benchmarks for what should happen in the months ahead.

However, the fact that Britain is the only member of the Group whose foreign minister will not attend the meeting has provoked disappointment in some Commonwealth circles.

Britain is represented by a junior minister, Tony Lloyd. A Foreign Office spokesperson said the departmental head, Robin Cook, had too much other work to do.

Work to be extended

The ministers will also discuss the situation in Sierra Leone, where ironically enough Nigerian forces have played the main part in ousting the military regime.

The meeting will be the first opportunity for the Action Group to discuss extending its work beyond Commonwealth countries under military rule, something agreed by the Edinburgh summit.

This is an extremely sensitive issue. The prospect of the Group reviewing human rights violations or democratic shortcomings in Kenya, for example, is very controversial.

As one Commonwealth source put it: it would be stirring up a hornets' nest.

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (Cmag) consists of Barbados, Botswana, Britain, Canada, Ghana, Malaysia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe.

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Internet Links

Official Nigerian government website

The Commonweath

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CHOGM website

Commonwealth Yearbook

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