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Defiant Mugabe poses major test to future of Commonwealth club
by Hugh McCullum

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Only two countries have withdrawn from the Commonwealth in its 59-year history. In 1961 Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd took apartheid South Africa out and it took 33 years of trauma to get a free, non-racist and democratic country back under the leadership of Nelson Mandela in 1994. On Dec. 8, 2003, President Robert Mugabe unilaterally withdrew from the Commonwealth without even discussing it with his cabinet to become the second member state ever to quit.  Ironically, it was in 1991 in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, that the Commonwealth took a sharp turn towards democracy and the rule of law for all its members. Until then, the principle had been one of non-intervention. Under those rules it was not uncommon for coups to take place and the latest general or dictator to show up at the next heads of government meeting. The Harare Declaration of 1991 saved the “club” from almost total irrelevance and when Zimbabwe was suspended in March 2002 after its violent and fraudulent presidential elections and its rigged parliamentary polls of 2000 - according to the Commonwealth’s own observer mission -  it was the first time a member had ever been suspended without a coup preceding it.

By Hugh McCullum

ABUJA, Nigeria -- At 79 and in failing health, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe still had the ability to highjack the agenda for the Commonwealth meeting here. He shaped it to his own ends, even though he was absent. The glitzy venue, in spite of its long list of major world-wide issues, became so obsessed with the tiny, crumbling and violent southern African nation that there is fear that it is once again in danger of collapsing into further irrelevance.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM), to give its proper name, met in Nigeria’s capital city from Dec. 6-9, spending hundreds of millions of dollars for a debacle that will take years to recover from. A split between the forces of “good”  (Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) and “bad” (Zimbabwe and those who supported its dictator – South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia), between white and black, has widened and regional alliances are badly bruised.

“Despite his physical absence, Mugabe’s extraordinary capacity for division dominated the meeting.”

Many African observers believe that media hype over Zimbabwe forced the CHOGM meeting into such a simplistic presentation of events that it drove off the agenda life and death issues such as poverty, food supply, health (especially HIV/AIDS), trade and agriculture.

 Despite his physical absence, Mugabe’s extraordinary capacity for division dominated the meeting, which he described as an “Anglo-Saxon unholy alliance.” He quit just before the meeting resolved to continue the sanctions until Zimbabwe achieved constitutional reform and the ruling party, ZANU-PF, began open talks with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. In an attempt to leave the door open for Mugabe’s return, the summit proposed a timetable that would allow Zimbabwe back in before the next two-yearly CHOGM meeting scheduled to be held in Malta in 2005.

When this proposal was conveyed to Mugabe by the leaders of Jamaica, South Africa and Nigeria on Sunday night, Dec. 7, in an attempt to persuade him not to quit, they were told “Zimbabwe has withdrawn its membership in the Commonwealth with immediate effect.”  Mugabe was adamant, stating: “Anything that you agree to on Zimbabwe which is short of this position [ending the suspension] no matter how sweetly worded, means Zimbabwe is still subject to the Commonwealth. This is unacceptable, this is it - it’s quits and quits it will be.”

The Commonwealth host, President Olusejen Obasanjo of Nigeria, having been rebuffed twice in recent days by Mugabe, said the tragedy now is that Mugabe is more isolated in the world community and within his own continent than ever before. Aside from the UN and its agencies Zimbabwe is under sanctions from the European Union and the U.S., suspended from the International Monetary Fund and most other international organizations and has caused division within the Southern African Development Community (SADC). However, as if to thumb his nose at the Commonwealth, Mugabe flew off to Geneva the next day in an Air Zimbabwe jet for an UN-sponsored conference on the Internet. The sanctions do not apply in Geneva.

President Thabo Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” suffered another blow. He had argued that keeping lines open with the intransigent Mugabe was better than outright confrontation and that Zimbabwe’s suspension was counter-productive. In the end, Mbeki was one of the “six wise men” set up as a committee to search for a consensus. It failed 4-2. Only Mozambique on the committee supported Mbeki’s position that the suspension be lifted. The others, Canada, India, Australia and Jamaica reported back that a seven-nation panel should be set up to monitor Zimbabwe’s progress towards improved democratic values.

“(Mbeki) argued that Zimbabwe was the victim of a double standard, which has seen Pakistan, suspended since the Musharraf military coup, treated more lightly because of its importance in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.”

That was it for Mugabe, as it was in many ways for Mbeki. He argued that Zimbabwe was the victim of a double standard, which has seen Pakistan, suspended since the Musharraf military coup, treated more lightly because of its importance in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. 

But even the African continent failed to support the Mugabe-Mbeki proposals. Since consensus usually prevails and votes are not taken, there was no count, but it is known that Botswana, Zimbabwe's neighbour, and Ghana, Kenya, and the Gambia also opposed lifting the suspension. Commonwealth newcomer President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique expressed “unhappiness” at what he called “the undemocratic procedures” employed but was told bluntly by Obasajano that “it was democratic, consensus decisions in the Commonwealth are always democratic.” President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia accused the western countries “of bulldozing Zimbabwe’s suspension because of their economic muscles.”

Twelve of the 14 members of  SADC are Commonwealth members but Mauritius, Botswana and Seychelles agreed to the continued  suspension. Later SADC issued a statement blaming the “dismissive, intolerant, and rigid attitude” on some Commonwealth members.

Mbeki made no public statement after the Commonwealth meeting ended, but was believed to be the prime mover behind the harsh SADC statement.

An interesting sub-text was introduced earlier in the CHOGM when it came to re-elect Secretary-General Don McKinnon, former foreign minister of New Zealand, to his second five-year term. Normally it would have been a pro forma consensus exercise but Mugabe and Mbeki made it a litmus test of support when a few countries nominated a little known 75-year-old Sri Lankan diplomat to run against McKinnon, accused by Mugabe and Mbeki of being a hardliner on Zimbabwe. McKinnon’s re-election by 42-10 was a bitter blow to Mugabe and his foreign minister, Stan Mudenge, who had traveled the globe in recent weeks canvassing votes in favour of the little known Lakshman Kadirgamar, a retired diplomat. 

Although the Commonwealth boasts that it represents some 1.8 billion people worldwide, it is a marginal player on the international diplomatic stage. Its two-year meetings are attended with great pomp and circumstance and some considerable expense to the host country. Queen Elizabeth is the Head and always attends and officially opens the meetings. It has long been known as the “Club” and maintains its secretariat in one of the many royal palaces in London, Marlborough House, a magnificent pile not far from Buckingham Palace.

Its demise has been predicted often, most especially when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose British government provided about 25 percent of the Commonwealth budget, threatened the break up the club in the 1980s over the issue of sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

The Magube debacle will probably not split the Commonwealth completely but the growing divisions between members will leave permanent scars. There is now a “white” Commonwealth of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There is also a southern African faction of 10 or 12 members. Although some of these are openly exasperated by Zimbabwe’s intransigence, they will stay together because of South Africa’s powerful economic and political hold on the region. But the rest of the Commonwealth from Asia, the Caribbean,  Latin America, Europe and the Pacific will try to maintain a balance between asserting good governance and democracy without telling member states what to do. It raises the question for some observers whether this club-like atmosphere can have serious impact on Commonwealth leaders like Mugabe whose attachment to democratic values are questionable.

Another test comes with Pakistan which was expelled from the Commonwealth in 1972, rejoined in 1989 and was suspended again in 1999 when General Pervez Musharraf staged a coup. It has since held some questionable parliamentary elections and there was talk at Abuja about its suspension being lifted. But if this is done too quickly, some observers say, those supporting Pakistan such as Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and Prime Minister John Howard of Australia who see Musharraf as an ally in the war against Osama bin Laden, will stand accused of having a double standard. Southern Africa especially saw Blair and Howard as hardliners against Mugabe.

The Abuja meeting had hoped that Zimbabwe would not dominate the agenda. It did. Nevertheless, it issued an official communiqué, which barely mentioned Mugabe, called the Asa Rock Declaration on Development and Democracy Partnership for International Prosperity.

Cameron Doudu, a specialist on African affairs, comments about unfair trade practices which never made the CHOGM discussions:

“Large corporations from the White Commonwealth, which have acquired the skills of playing the market, continue to make huge profits from the crops of peasants in fields not far from Abuja where the people live from hand-to-mouth. It has been so for the past 100 years. And if the World Trade Organization has its way, it will continue for another 100 years because the rules that govern international trade have all been written by, and in favour of, the rich countries, including those in the Commonwealth.

“The Commonwealth is well placed to take the initiative in dismantling the inequities in world trade and indeed the final communiqué mentions the Commonwealth’s intention to contribute to the debates within the WTO. But who will read about trade matters if readers are buried neck down in tons of newsprint devoted to Zimbabwe.”

“the media paid huge attention to Zimbabwe’s dismal economy... but ignored the disaster facing millions of starving peasant farmers and concentrated on the plight of white farmers.”

Indeed the media paid huge attention to Zimbabwe’s dismal economy - it has contracted by 40 percent between 1999 and 2003 and inflation is running at nearly 600 percent - but ignored the disaster facing millions of starving peasant farmers and concentrated on the plight of white farmers dispossessed of their land by Mugabe’s “war veterans”.

There is room to accuse the Commonwealth, especially the white one, of double standards. If the Commonwealth does not take seriously its increasing irrelevance to the mass of its populations in the impoverished Commonwealth countries, its oft-predicted demise or split may finally become a reality. Abuja was a missed opportunity which the White Commonwealth can go home and ignore. Africans cannot.

With files from Abuja, Nigeria

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