14 July 2002

Commonwealth leaders meet Mugabe and minister for first time since suspension

There was renewed hope in diplomatic circles of a breakthrough in Zimbabwe's political stalemate this week as Robert Mugabe's government reopened talks with mediators. Mugabe met Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, while his foreign minister, Stan Mudenge, held discussions with Commonwealth secretary-general Don McKinnon, when leaders gathered in Durban for the launch of the African Union this week. Obasanjo, President Thabo Mbeki and Australian Prime Minister John Howard had suspended Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth for one year after its March presidential elections were deemed to have been rigged. McKinnon told the Sunday Times that relations between himself and the Zimbabwean government had been icy since the suspension and there had been no real contact between them. "The relationship has not been a good one since the decision. Every time a country has been suspended, you go into a sort of frozen relationship for a while," McKinnon said.

He was given the task of engaging the Zimbabwean government, particularly on the land redistribution issue, while Obasanjo and Mbeki were given the responsibility of facilitating reconciliation talks between Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu PF and opposition Movement for Democratic Change. The peace talks broke down when Zanu PF withdrew on the basis of the MDC's court challenge to the elections. Mbeki and Obasanjo have so far failed to get the talks back on track. But McKinnon said his talks with Mudenge this week were a "positive development". McKinnon also held talks with about a dozen African leaders who were feeling the spillover effect of the Zimbabwean crisis. "They all said the same thing - that it is time to normalise things and that they believe that there is a desire for that in Zimbabwe as well," McKinnon said.

Obasanjo described his talks with Mugabe as constructive. "I met with Mugabe for almost an hour. We had the meeting in an atmosphere we hadn't had since London [where the decision to suspend Zimbabwe was taken]. It was something very good," Obasanjo said. "We are making progress. It may not be as fast as we like, but we are making progress." Obasanjo has also briefed United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan on his meeting with Mugabe. "He was so heartened that he wanted to meet Mugabe," said Obasanjo. Mbeki did not discuss the crisis with Mugabe this week. There has been a cooling of relations between the two leaders since a confidential letter Mbeki sent to Mugabe urging him back to the negotiating table was leaked to Zimbabwe's state-owned press. McKinnon said it was not clear what steps Obasanjo and Mbeki would take next. The Commonwealth troika would have to assess the situation after at least 11 months before deciding whether to readmit Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth or to take further action, said McKinnon.

In a separate development, the Zimbabwe Standard has learnt that war veterans, disillusioned with the land seizure exercise which has seen top government officials reap huge benefits, have decided to break away from Zanu PF and form their own political party, the New People's Party (NPP). According to sources, the NPP is to be made up of the majority of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWA) whose membership currently stands at 50.000. This move will likely deal a major blow to the beleaguered Zanu PF as the ex-freedom fighters are its last remaining loyal and trusted supporters. War veterans calling themselves the 'Vanguard of the Third Chimurenga' have in the past two years waged a bloody campaign aimed at crushing growing support for Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition MDC, who almost relegated President Robert Mugabe to the dustbin of political history. But only three months after the presidential election, controversially won by Mugabe, the former fighters watch helplessly as land is grabbed by top government officials and their cronies.

Contacted for comment, war veterans secretary-general, Andy Mhlanga, denied however that some members of his association were defecting from Zanu PF. (ZWNews / Sunday Times, SA; Zimbabwe Standard)

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