Nigerian opposition groups yesterday scorned the Commonwealth for insisting it was getting tough with Gen Sani Abacha after his military regime was given another year before facing any new punitive measures. As the Edinburgh summit opened, the British Foreign Secretary, Mr Robin Cook, said the Commonwealth was determined to deal with Nigeria, and that an oil embargo and expulsion were among eight possible measures that could be enforced.
No formal announcement will be made until the summit ends on Monday, but the Commonwealth Ministerial Action group decided on Thursday to recommend that new moves could take effect if Nigeria failed to meet its own timetable for the restoration of democracy.
CMAG, formed after Nigeria hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa during the 1995 Auckland summit, recommended limited sanctions last year but suspended them to give Nigeria more time. Mr Cook said the group would have the right to impose stronger measures at any time over the next year.
"If by next October [the Nigerians] have missed the deadline then the very tough proposals we're making - for an oil ban, for the seizure of financial assets of members of the government - will be recommended by the ministerial action group," he said.
"Expulsion must be considered as one of the options."
But there was sharp disappointment among advocates of a tougher line: "By taking this position the Commonwealth has told the whole world, in unmistakable terms, that absolutely no value is to be placed on its words," said a statement issued by Nigerian groups in Edinburgh.
"The Commonwealth can only be relevant to its citizens if it puts their interests before that of undemocratic and authoritarian structures of power. Should it fail to achieve this the Edinburgh heads-of-government meeting risks being condemned as a club where democratically elected leaders meet to endorse the policies of dictatorships."
Critics say Mr Cook may be making the mistake of creating exaggerated expectations about what can be done. An internationally agreed oil embargo, with the US the world's largest buyer of Nigerian oil, is unlikely to be agreed at a time when support for existing economic sanctions against Iraq and Libya are being eroded.
Issuing a new report, Human Rights Watch yesterday called for Nigeria's expulsion. "The transition programme put in place by Gen Abacha is a sham," said director Mr Peter Takirambudde. "The Commonwealth should not be fooled into believing that the Nigerian military is serious about its promise to hand over power to a civilian government."
Political crisis has gripped the oil-producing West African country since the army annulled the 1993 presidential elections. The presumed winner, millionaire businessman Mr Moshood Abiola, is among dozens of detainees.
Some diplomats suggested last night that Nigeria got off lightly because of the role it has been playing in attempts to persuade the military junta in Sierra Leone to give up power.