|20 March 2002
ZIMBABWE: Commonwealth turns on Mugabe
The Commonwealth humiliated President Mugabe yesterday by
suspending Zimbabwe and calling for new elections. African leaders in a
Commonwealth committee meeting in London were forced to distance themselves
from Mr Mugabe's tainted election "victory". It was a surprising and serious
reverse for Mr Mugabe, who had tried to play off "white" countries against
As his problems mounted following the election controversy, Switzerland
imposed further sanctions, including a freeze on any financial assets held by
Zimbabwean government officials in Swiss banks. A foreign ministry spokesman in
Geneva said: "This decision is made in view of the manipulation of the
presidential elections and human rights violations."
Although the Commonwealth's measures are mainly symbolic, they caused
obvious pain in Harare where Mr Mugabe's associates called it a "bad decision".
But Zimbabwe will find it hard to brush off the ruling, which was taken by a
committee composed of Africa's two biggest states, South Africa and Nigeria,
together with Australia. As Downing Street welcomed the move as a vindication
of its policy and "absolutely the right thing to do", the Commonwealth said it
would continue to seek "reconciliation in Zimbabwe between the main political
parties" The decision followed an election widely judged by outside observers
to have been rigged. Many feel that Mr Mugabe's 56-42 per cent "victory" over
the opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai would have proved impossible without
the widespread use of fraud and violence.
Zimbabwe joins Fiji and Pakistan on a blacklist of countries "suspended
from the councils of the Commonwealth", meaning that it cannot take part in any
of the decision-making meetings of the 54-member organisation. John Howard,
Australia's prime minister, who presided over the "troika" of Commonwealth
leaders that took the decision, said the suspension would be reviewed in a
year. The other members of his group were President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa
and President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria.
The Commonwealth move came after a sharp U-turn from Mr Mbeki, whose
lieutenants had recognised the election as "legitimate" and congratulated Mr
Mugabe. Hours before the decision, Mr Tsvangirai, leader of Zimbabwe's Movement
for Democratic Change, predicted that South Africa would block any attempt to
suspend Zimbabwe, on the grounds that it was trying to encourage a dialogue
between the MDC and the ruling Zanu PF party. However, Mr Mbeki, and to a
lesser extent Mr Obasanjo, were forced to break ranks with Mr Mugabe by the
unexpectedly tough wording of the Commonwealth election observers' report,
which found that "the conditions in Zimbabwe did not adequately allow for a
free expression of will by the electors". Behind the scenes, Tony Blair spoke
to Mr Mbeki to exert last-minute pressure on South Africa and to issue a veiled
warning that the future of an ambitious plan to provide large-scale aid to
Africa in return for economic and political reforms was at stake.
As British officials praised Mr Howard for "playing a blinder", the
Australian prime minister went out of his way to acknowledge the "constructive"
attitude of Mr Mbeki and Mr Obasanjo. But he did not deny the deep divisions
had been difficult to overcome during the four hours of talks. Mr Mbeki
pointedly declined to speak in public.
The Commonwealth decision shows all the signs of an uncomfortable
compromise. Mr Howard refused to say whether he, or the leaders of South Africa
and Nigeria, considered Mr Mugabe to be the legitimate leader of Zimbabwe. The
Commonwealth called for the international community to increase economic aid to
stave off Zimbabwe's food shortages, and Mr Howard urged other countries not to
impose further sanctions for the moment. The European Union has imposed a
travel ban on 20 senior members of Mr Mugabe's entourage and has frozen their
assets. The United States has also imposed a travel ban, a move echoed by
Switzerland in its hard-hitting statement last night.
Mr Mbeki and Mr Obasanjo seem intent on trying to promote a dialogue in
Zimbabwe, which Mr Tsvangirai has ruled out while political violence continues.
(ZMNews / Daily Telegraph, UK)