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Commonwealth Summit Opens Friday In Nigerian Capital - 2003-12-04

The Commonwealth summit of mainly former British colonies opens Friday in Nigeria without Zimbabwe, which remains suspended from the group. The issue of how to deal with Zimbabwe will likely dominate the proceedings.

The arrival of Queen Elizabeth Wednesday in Abuja - her first visit to Nigeria since its independence from the British Empire -- is getting less attention than the absence of Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe.

Mr. Mugabe was trying to get an invitation, despite Zimbabwe's suspension from the group, but the host, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, would not extend one.

An analyst with the British-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, Alex Vines, says Nigeria failed to iron out the Commonwealth's differences with Zimbabwe.

He says, "President Obasanjo had hoped to mediate and get some sort of promise from Zimbabwe, so that he could have tried to negotiate some sort of presence of Zimbabwe at the summit. But, it hasn't worked, and so what we're now seeing is sour grapes by Zimbabwe, who are excluded from this summit. So, they are going around trying to sort of divide the Commonwealth, and this is why you now have the debate that's emerged over who will be the next secretary-general of the Commonwealth."

Mr. Mugabe has been pushing for the nomination of a former Sri Lankan foreign minister, Lakshaman Kadirgamar, to replace the incumbent New Zealander, Don McKinnon. Mr. Mugabe has also threatened to pull Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth.

Zimbabwe was suspended last year, after Commonwealth observers said Mr. Mugabe's re-election had been marred by vote-rigging and state intimidation.

Since then, Mr. McKinnon has accused Mr. Mugabe of orchestrating political killings, torture and of starving his own people with misguided policies.

For his part, Mr. Mugabe accuses what he calls the white section of the Commonwealth -- mainly Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand -- of splitting the Commonwealth along racial lines. He says the white, anglo-saxon unholy alliance despises him because of his forced redistribution of white-owned land for blacks.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who will be attending the summit, says he doesn't think such comments will divide the Commonwealth.

"I don't think it will split the summit. I think people will note the present situation and move on. And what the Mugabe government decide is up to them. I just think it's a tragedy for people in Zimbabwe that as a result of that government that people suffer so much there. And the people that are suffering, the vast majority of them, are the black population that are suffering."

But disagreements on how to deal with Zimbabwe at the summit are brewing. Zambia says it will lead a campaign to readmit Zimbabwe immediately, while Australia and New Zealand say the suspension should remain.

Canada has suggested setting up a review mechanism, under which Zimbabwe would not have to wait until the next summit in two years to be re-admitted.

Nigeria will also face difficulties while it hosts the summit because of increasing concerns about its own human rights record. A human rights campaigner, Carina Terstakian, says there is what she calls a hypocritical double standard within the Commonwealth, which focuses on problems in Zimbabwe, while ignoring problems in Nigeria.

A parallel meeting by non-governmental organizations opened Thursday in Abuja to discuss Nigeria's human rights problems. The organizations accuse Nigeria's government of preventing freedom of expression by opposition activists, journalists and union leaders.

A Nigerian presidential spokesman has responded to the charges, saying they are exaggerated. He accused non-governmental organizations of practicing what he calls opposition at all costs, and kicking down Nigeria, while it was still lifting itself, four years after the end of military rule.