Ex-colonial club fails education test

October 31, 1997

The crush barriers and unfamiliar national flags have gone. Edinburgh's citizens can now reclaim their streets from the invasion of Commonwealth leaders and their entourages that they anticipated for a year and endured for three days.

But, as normality returns, there is a depressing sense that the Commonwealth summit failed to live up to expectations of its impact on human rights, stabilised economic development and education.

Perhaps those expectations were unreasonable. The power of the Commonwealth is easily exaggerated - by definition it proceeds by consensus, and therefore at the pace of its slowest partners.

Whatever the exhortations of the final communique to greater efforts to secure human rights, the Commonwealth lacks the muscle to enforce its aspirations. Its real power is to proceed by persuasion, by example and by occupying the moral high ground.

Time was short and the issues complex. Unsurprisingly, education issues, debated just three months ago in Botswana, only managed to creep on to the agenda of the senior officials accompanying the heads of states, the quaintly styled Committee of the Whole, and then occupied a mere three paragraphs of the committee's report. A nod in the direction of the benefits deemed to flow from educational technologies; a gesture of encouragement for the promotion of Commonwealth studies and for the creation of an Association of Commonwealth Studies; reiterated support for student mobility.

As for many worthy initiatives the key is money, and the purse strings are held not by the Commonwealth but by its richer member states - and with increasing tightness. Edinburgh changed little there. The attitude of the donor nations is evident in that even the Commonwealth of Learning, the distance learning agency heads of government had themselves initiated, was offered no more in Edinburgh than an exhortation to states, which had pledged continued support in Botswana, to make good their promises.

But the deepest disappointment was the unwillingness to deal effectively with Nigeria - the Commonwealth's greatest human rights crisis since the divisions over sanctions against South Africa.

Commonwealth leaders effectively gave the repressive military regime of Sani Abacha 11 months to prove the genuineness of its claims to be restoring democratic government, backed by the possibility of limited Commonwealth-wide sanctions before October 1998. If the Commonwealth's criteria are not met, then harsher action, including an oil embargo, is threatened. So, too, is denial of educational opportunities to members of the regime and their families.

Commonwealth leaders' failure to move immediately to expulsion and full-blown sanctions angered the Nigerian civil rights activists. Among the disappointed was Wole Soyinka, Nobel prize winner for literature, who singled out the regime's treatment of Nigeria's universities as one of its cardinal crimes.

Reports suggest his analysis is correct. The regime sees the universities as a focus of resistance. Starved of funds, the universities' efforts to educate the people the country will have been thwarted. Many of the best lecturers have elected for safer climes elsewhere in Africa or in the United States. Those who remain and speak out risk their jobs, and, potentially, their lives. Others, less courageous, judge that their career interests are best served through compliance. Campuses have been violated. Students have died.

Parallels with apartheid South Africa spring to mind. There too critics of the regime persuaded many of the world's universities that the denial of academic freedom was their concern. Archbishop Desmond Tutu endorsed an international academic boycott, which was taken up, in the UK, by the Association of University Teachers and the National Union of Students. Then, too, opponents of sanctions argued the innocent would be harmed while the dictators remained unscathed.

The question for university communities who watched the events of autumn 1995 with horror and this week's prevarication with gloom is should they continue to wait on the Commonwealth? Or should discussions begin now on an academic boycott of Nigeria and pressure be brought to bear within institutions for a programme of disinvestment from the powerful multinationals involved in Nigeria?

Speaking before the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni activists, Sir Shridath Ramphal, chancellor of Warwick University and a former secretary-general of the Commonwealth, said: "If the Commonwealth does not stand with the people of Nigeria ... it is the Commonwealth that will be the poorer."

Professor Soyinka and his band of exiles know the real costs of defending academic freedom. They deserve support from the academic community.

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