Accessibility links

Breaking News

Commonwealth Summit Opens in Nigeria - 2003-12-05

The Commonwealth summit has opened in Nigeria, where Zimbabwe's suspension from the group is dividing heads of state.

Dancers from different ethnic groups greeted heads of state arriving for the 2003 Commonwealth summit in Abuja on Friday. Queen Elizabeth II officially marked its opening in the capital's sprawling convention center, hailing the Commonwealth as a significant group, which unites nearly a third of the world's population.

"The Commonwealth is an example of multilateralism at work, allowing its members, whatever their size or level of development, to have their voices heard in the concert of nations," the queen said. "Ladies and gentlemen, you are meeting here at a time when new, as well as old challenges confront us - poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, the scourge of HIV-AIDS, the lack of educational opportunities are all among the legacies, which the world has not been able to overcome."

The Commonwealth secretary general, Don McKinnon, a New Zealander, said the main themes of the summit would be promoting development and democracy.

The host of the summit, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, says Nigeria is a good example of progress, just four years after the end of military rule, during which time it was suspended from the group because of human rights abuses.

"The choice of Nigeria for this meeting is an honor that the people of Nigeria cherish," said president Obasanjo. "It attests to the full acceptance of our country back into the Commonwealth, and also signifies the endorsement by the association of our progress in democratic governance."

Two countries currently suspended for failing to meet democratic standards are Zimbabwe and Pakistan. Zimbabwe was suspended last year, after Commonwealth observers said President Robert Mugabe had rigged his re-election and was leading a campaign of intimidation against his opposition.

Pakistan was suspended after a military coup in October 1999.

While a Pakistani delegation is in Abuja to quietly negotiate an end to the suspension, the case of Zimbabwe is producing a heated debate.

President Mugabe was furious not to be invited, and has accused white leaders of despising him because of his program to redistribute white-owned land to blacks. Leaders from Canada, Australia and Britain have all said Zimbabwe should remain suspended because it lacks a proper democracy.

But leaders from southern African countries say Zimbabwe should be readmitted immediately, so that the country's economic decline can be reversed.

The topic of Zimbabwe will likely dominate closed-door meetings, which will take place over the next few days. A final communiqué will be released at the summit's end on Monday.