Queen to open summit in Nigeria

3rd December 2003

Queen Elizabeth II of Britain was set to arrive today in her former west African colony Nigeria for the first time since it won its independence, as Abuja gears up to host the Commonwealth summit.

Some 47 years have passed since the Queen last came to Nigeria, during which time it has suffered through civil war, military dictatorship and corrupt rule, still to emerge in the 21st century as the world's biggest black nation.

On Friday, Her Majesty will declare open the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, but before then there will be plenty of time for pomp and ceremony as the guest of Nigeria's elected president, Olusegun Obasanjo.

"The Queen is delighted to be returning to a democratic Nigeria, and she's going to have particular pleasure to come out as head of the Commonwealth," her spokesperson Penny Russell-Smith told reporters yesterday.

"Her main aim is to ensure that she meets as many of the Nigerian people as she can, within the time she is here," she added.

The Queen and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, will only be in Nigeria for a little over three days however, arriving late today and leaving Saturday, and will divide their time between Commonwealth and the state visit.

There will no opportunity to revisit the three-week odyssey the pair made as a young couple in 1956, just four years after the coronation.

Then, they visited the southern port cities of Calabar, Lagos and Port Harcourt on the steamy, forested shores of the Gulf of Guinea, explored the Benue river valley and trekked to the great Islamic centres of the arid north.

Now the Queen will be limited to Nigeria's new model capital Abuja, and her consort will make a solo day trip to Lagos, to see old friends at a conservation centre and inspect a British funded project for HIV/Aids victims.

In fact, many eyebrows have been raised in Nigeria by the fact that the Queen's only real contact with apparently "real Nigerians" - as opposed to the Abuja political elite - will be in a fake village market populated by actors.

Tomorrow she will take a short, half-hour drive to the village of New Karu just outside Abuja, where BBC television producers have built a film-set reconstruction of a street market, 500 m from the real village.

There, followed by five cameras, she will circulate "reality TV" style among a coached crowd of tame locals and BBC actors playing their roles from a new educational radio soap opera, "Voices", which will be recorded there.

New Karu's true denizens will be held back half-a-kilometre away by a security cordon, and only be allowed to watch their honoured guest by way of a live broadcast onto a specially erected cinema screen.

Many in Nigeria have expressed disappointment that the Queen will not see the daily reality of real village life.

More than 75% of Nigerians live on less that one dollar/day, many - perhaps most - villages have no mains electricity, and many have no access to clean water, basic healthcare or adequate schooling.

But security concerns are paramount at a time when British and other western interests around the world are under threat from hardline Islamist groups, and there was no question of a royal walkabout in Nigeria's teeming slums.

"This was seen as a good compromise at the time," said British High Commission spokesperson Paul Edwards, acknowledging that some would be disappointed that the Queen would not be able to establish more personal contacts.

Aside from New Karu's new radio studio and mock market, Her Majesty will also attend two reciprocal state dinners, and address the 52 arriving leaders of the Commonwealth member states, mainly former British colonies.

The CHOGM summit will open on Friday and continue until Monday. – Sapa-AFP.