A divided Commonwealth

Print edition : January 16, 2004

Schoolchildren and national service cadets protest against the Commonwealth in Masvingo, south of the Zimbabwean capital of Harare, on December 5. - HOWARD BURDITT/REUTERS

The exit of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth, thanks to the intransigence of member-countries such as Australia and Britain, does not augur well for the organisation's future.

AS expected, the Commonwealth summit held in Abuja, Nigeria, in the first week of December was dominated by the issue of Zimbabwe's suspension from the organisation. President Robert Mugabe had warned that Zimbabwe would have no option but to quit the Commonwealth if his country's suspension was not revoked at the Abuja summit.

Following the re-election of Mugabe in 2002, a group of Commonwealth nations led by the United Kingdom and Australia, initiated moves that brought about the suspension of Zimbabwe during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The British government and media had begun demonising Mugabe ever since the Zimbabwean government started carrying out land reforms. At least 70 per cent of the country's arable land is owned by white farmers.

As in the case of the war against Iraq, Britain's closest allies in the campaign to undermine the Zimbabwean government were the United States and Australia. The U.S. and the European Union imposed "smart sanctions" on Zimbabwe, in a bid to tighten the economic noose. Currently, inflation in Zimbabwe is at 500 per cent and unemployment stands at 80 per cent.

Australia was part of the troika appointed by the Commonwealth last year to find a solution to the impasse on the emotive issue. The other two members were Nigeria and South Africa. Apparently, the Australian government adopted an uncompromising posture from the very beginning on the issue of re-admitting Zimbabwe into the Commonwealth. In fact, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo criticised the hardline approach taken by Australia ahead of the summit in Abuja.

Senior Zimbabwean officials said that their government's decision was a reaction to "the racist and colonial" politics that had come to dominate the decision-making process within the Commonwealth. Zimbabwe's Minister of Home Affairs Kembo Mohadi reaffirmed his government's decision to dismantle the economic hegemony of the white settler minority.

Speaking at an official function, a few days after the Abuja summit, the senior Minister sarcastically characterised those who wanted to penalise Zimbabwe "as the angels of democracy". He said that their aim was to destroy the national institutions of Zimbabwe as "the government was gearing to dismantle the hegemony of the white settler colonial minority". He blamed the present economic plight of the country on the policies pursued by the government over the past two decades under the influence of Western financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. "If anything, we have been led down the garden path, leaving us in deeper economic, political and social morass, which the government has decided to tackle head on through its land reform and indigenisation policies," he said. Despite the fact that Zimbabwe is in dire economic straits, the IMF has virtually stopped all aid and credit because of the country's failure to repay a $273-million debt.

Didymus Mutasa, Foreign Affairs Secretary of the ruling Zimbabwean African National Union-Popular Front (ZANU-PF) said that the measures that the Commonwealth proposed to take against Zimbabwe were aimed at protecting "the interests of the white farmer".

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (left) with South African President Thabo Mbeki when the latter arrived in Harare on December 18 to discuss Zimbabwe's political and economic crises.-AP

The Commonwealth's decision to keep Zimbabwe suspended was based on the guidelines provided by the historic 1991 Harare summit, at which the CHOGM leaders had sworn fealty to "the rule of law and commitment to democracy" in their respective countries. Since then, member-countries such as Pakistan, Fiji and Nigeria have had to face suspension from the organisation. Pakistan remains suspended after the military takeover by General Pervez Musharraf though there was considerable behind-the-scenes diplomatic manoeuvres by some of Islamabad's friends in the "war against terror" to get the suspension revoked.

Among the Heads of State present at Abuja, South African President Thabo Mbeki was the most vocal critic of the decision to keep Zimbabwe suspended from the organisation. He told the media that the decision was not "justified" as it was not arrived at by consensus, as was the Commonwealth tradition. In a letter written by Mbeki and published on the web site of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Mbeki highlighted the "strong disagreement" of the member-countries of the South African Development Community (SADC) with the CHOGM decision. Mbeki said that Zimbabwe was never given an opportunity to respond to the report of the Commonwealth observers' team, which had cast doubts about the fairness of the 2002 elections in Zimbabwe. "We also must make the point that the Zimbabwe government has been never given the possibility to respond to the report of the Commonwealth observers, contrary both to the principles of natural justice and the rules of the Commonwealth," the letter stated.

The Commonwealth overlooked the "land issue" which, the letter said, was at the "core of the crisis" in Zimbabwe. "Indeed the land question has disappeared from the global discourse about Zimbabwe, except when it is mentioned to highlight the plight of the former landowners and to attribute the food shortage in Zimbabwe to the land redistribution programme," Mbeki said.

Echoing the views of most Africans, he pointed out that the roots of the present crisis in Zimbabwe could be traced to 1965 when the then British Prime Minster Harold Wilson refused to suppress the revolt led by the white supremacist Ian Smith "because the British government felt that it could not act against `its white kith and kin' in favour of the African majority". In the liberation war that followed, 30,000 people lost their lives.

Bala Usman, a Nigerian thinker and activist, who tried to submit a petition to the CHOGM asking for the suspension of Britain and Australia from the organisation for their role in the Iraq war, said that the land question had disappeared "from the global discourse about Zimbabwe". He said that the problem came up only in the context of the plight of former white landowners and in order to relate it to the problem of food shortages. Bala Usman accused the E.U. and the United Nations of backing away from the commitment to finance the redistribution of land in Zimbabwe. Reacting to Western criticism, Mugabe said recently: "How can these countries, who have stolen land from Red Indians, Aborigines and Eskimos, dare to tell us what we should do with our land?"

Mbeki observed that the British and other Western governments, in the interest of their "kith and kin", allowed the white supremacists to rule for more than a decade and a half until they were forced to come to the negotiating table by the relentless guerrilla war waged under the leadership of Mugabe. Even today he is affectionately called "Comrade Bob" by the older generation of Zimbabweans who fought in the liberation struggle. When he was dutifully implementing IMF-World Bank prescriptions, the whites in Zimbabwe used to call him "good old Bob". Mbeki said that the SADC countries, along with Uganda, were saddened by the "dismissive, intolerant and rigid attitude" adopted by some of the Commonwealth countries, though he did not mention any country by name.

Much of the blame has been apportioned to Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon. South Africa wanted a new Secretary-General and had in fact proposed the candidature of the former Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Even New Delhi did not support the South African move, on the grounds that it was made on short notice. The Indian government was more interested in extending Pakistan's suspension from the Commonwealth than in lending a helping hand to the African nations supporting Zimbabwe. Around 12 Commonwealth nations supported Kadirgamar's candidature. Mbeki said that the recent developments did not augur well for the future of the Commonwealth. He said that the recent events would not help the cause of economic restructuring or political reconciliation in Zimbabwe, two things that the country needed urgently.

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