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 "black" states.

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)

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