December 11, 2003

ZIMBABWE: Mugabe announces withdrawal from Commonwealth

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has quitted the 54-nation Commonwealth after it extended a suspension of Zimbabwe first imposed in 2002 on grounds that he had rigged his re-election and persecuted opponents. The Zimbabwean President gave no indication when his country would withdraw from the grouping of mostly former British colonies, but he announced to delegates at the end of the ZANU PF's annual two-day conference: "If we say we are doing this, we will do it. We never retreat."

The withdrawal has sparked anger among Mugabe's critics and opponents, who claim that the move demonstrated his aversion to democratic principles binding the Commonwealth members together. They are worrying over a crackdown on anti-government and opposition party activists as a result of the withdrawal. "President Mugabe's conduct shows his determination and that of ZANU PF to maintain dictatorship, violation of human rights and denial of the people's democratic rights," claimed opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) secretary-general, Welshman Ncube. "All that the international community and the people of Zimbabwe require the President to do is to restore the freedoms, liberties and rights of the people of Zimbabwe, and in particular the right to elect a government of their choice free from intimidation, violence and electoral fraud," Ncube charged.

On the other hand, South Africa has criticised the Commonwealth's handling of Zimbabwe, emphasising that it had damaged international efforts to end a political crisis in its northern neighbour. South Africa, which has mediated in Zimbabwe's crisis, said that the members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) were "disappointed" by the outcome of the Commonwealth summit in Nigeria. "What is sad and unfortunate is that the decision of the Commonwealth summit virtually cut Zimbabwe off, because Zimbabwe has now withdrawn," Abdul Minty, deputy director general of South Africa's Foreign Ministry, declared. According to South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma, South Africa shared the SADC view that the decision to continue the suspension of Zimbabwe would not help the Zimbabweans to overcome their difficulties.

Before Mugabe's announcement of withdrawal, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa has already described as unjustified the continued suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth of Nations. He said the decision to keep the Southern Africa country suspended was not, as is the Commonwealth tradition, arrived at by consensus. In a letter to his political party, he highlighted the "strong disagreement" of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries with the decision. Mbeki said that while some countries felt that it was time to lift the suspension, others believe there was no justification for such a step and that there was indeed reason to impose stronger measures. He added that "the statement that we expressed ourselves in favour of the continuation of the suspension was false".

To underline his country's disapproval of the suspension, Mbeki pointed out that Zimbabwe was not given the opportunity to respond to the charges. While faulting the stance of the Commonwealth, Mbeki explained that at the core of the crisis in that country was the land question, which, he said, could not be separated from other issues of concern. He furthermore expressed regrets that the land question was not discussed at Abuja. "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 food shortages in Zimbabwe to the land redistribution programme," the South African leader said. He furthermore traced the current crisis in Zimbabwe back to 1965 when the then British Labour government under Prime Minister Harold Wilson had refused to suppress the rebellion against the British Crown led by Ian Smith.

Mbeki said the SADC and Uganda expressed their deep concern with the dismissive, intolerant and rigid attitude displayed by some members of the Commonwealth during the deliberations. He added that "the Commonwealth has operated always on the basis of consensus. We fear that this attitude is destined to undermine the spirit that makes the Commonwealth a unique family of nations. This development does not augur well for the future of the Commonwealth". Mbeki stated that what Zimbabwe required was a programme of political reconciliation, economic restructuring and transformation that places the people and country first and transcends the differences that were demonstrated in the election process. He moreover argued that the continued isolation of Zimbabwe would not facilitate the achievement of this goal. (Sunday Times, Johannesburg/This Day, Lagos/Financial Gazette, Harare)

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