Britain tries to limit Dikko affair's effect on Nigeria ties

Britain has opted for damage-limitation rather than open confrontation as the wisest though not the most popular way of handling the Dikko affair. Umaru Dikko, the former Nigerian transport minister, was found drugged and crated up at London's Stansted Airport in a foiled plot to get him out of Britain.

Despite earlier British anger and protestations that it would not tolerate diplomatic violence on its soil, the government has decided to move with caution.

Britain will not break in diplomatic relations, and there will probably be no further diplomatic expulsions since Nigeria merely reciprocates in kind.

Although the decision doesn't sit will with the House of Commons, the Foreign Office has agreed to the Nigerian demand that Hamilton Whyte, British high commissioner to Nigeria, be recalled to London for ''consultations.'' Nigeria also let it be known that it would be ''inappropriate'' for Mr. Whyte to return to Lagos.

Such diplomatic language was in fact used by the British foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, who used that same words when stating that the return of the Nigerian high commissioner to London would not be welcome.

Nigeria's tactics during the diplomatic game have been to match the British in both word and deed. Britain has already expelled two Nigerian diplomats from London. Nigeria has expelled two British diplomats of equal standing from Nigeria. Nigeria took the initiative of withdrawing its high commissioner in London presumably to preempt an expulsion order from Britain.

Sir Geoffrey says he regrets Nigeria's latest retaliation - having Britain's high commissioner called home. ''Although we can see no justification for this, in order to avoid a further deterioration in our relations, I have agreed with the request,'' he said.

Earlier this year Britain had no compunction about expelling members of the Libyan People's Bureau (embassy) and breaking diplomatic relations.

Although the breaking point - the gunning of a British policewoman in a Libyan counterdemonstration - was a graver offense than the Dikko affair, Britain has gone to some length to keep from classifying the Libyan and Nigerian incidents as similar events.

Britain, although angered by the Dikko affair, is very conscious that Nigeria is a Commonwealth country. Nigeria is also an important trading partner. Britain's trade with Nigeria is eclipsed only by that with the United States and Western Europe.

The British presence in Nigeria is underscored by the fact that Britain maintains a staff of 155 people there, although some are on the technical side. Nigeria's mission in London is one of the largest of any country in Britain. Both countries would like to find a way out of this impasse if they could do so without appearing to be weak.

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