The Daily Champion (Nigeria).
ZIMBABWE’S withdrawal from the Commonwealth on December 7 followed the refusal of the organisation to end that country’s suspension from the body. In March 2002, the Commonwealt
h cited Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe’s election-rigging and persecution of dissidents to suspend the country from the group.
In the heat of the electoral campaigns in 2002, the opposition presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, was restricted by a new law from campaigning openly and his supporters labelled dissidents and hounded. Independent journalism was banned, and journalists Mugabe disliked barred from practising in the country. Mugabe’s army chief warned that he would never let Tsvangirai become president. For the same reasons of election-rigging and violation of human rights by the Mugabe government, the United States and the European Union (EU) imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe.
At the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), in Abuja, the organisation refused to terminate Zimbabwe’s suspension insisting that Mugabe’s government was yet to shun its oppressiveness and embrace democratic means. The evidence is there.
In September, barely three months before the CHOGM, Zimbabwean police shut down the country’s only independent daily. By a new law, known as Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which demands, among others, licensing of journalists and prohibitive registration fees for private newspapers, President Mugabe has permanently kept out independent journalism.
During the recent CHOGM, Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) showed in Abuja grisly video clips of its members being hounded and brutalised by Mugabe’s government. Almost simultaneously, President Mugabe threatened to use “some measures of force” against his opponents. The continued hounding and hurling into detention of members of Zimbabwe’s opposition cannot rightly be dismissed as a common fate of dissidents on the African continent.
The situation is bound to worsen still with Zimbabwe’s expulsion on December 3 by the IMF. The expulsion was prompted by the government’s unwillingness to take steps to revive Zimbabwe’s economy that has shrunk by 40% since 1999 and reduce the current inflation of 619,5% and large dependence of the population on foreign food aid. President Mugabe and his supporters claim that Zimbabwe is being unfairly treated by white members of the Commonwealth who are opposed to its controversial land reform programme. So far, by the redistribution of the farmlands or the wholesale transfer of them from white farmers to black Zimbabweans, the farmlands have become less productive in the hands of farmers who lack skills and equipment. The solution should be gradual, phasal transfer of the farmlands.
Zimbabwe’s pull-out from the Commonwealth follows the example of apartheid-era South Africa which quit the organisation in 1961 rather than dismantle the oppressive apartheid regime. Pakistan, though still suspended from the Commonwealth because of its military regime, has not withdrawn from the organisation.
With the restoration of democracy in Fiji and Nigeria, the countries once suspended for mounting coups and hanging dissidents respectively, have returned to the Commonwealth. President Mugabe should be persuaded to take necessary steps to return his country to the Commonwealth.
As long as Zimbabwe stays out of the Commonwealth, the US and the EU are likely to retain their sanctions which are having adverse effects on the country’s economy. Because Zimbabwe is out of the Commonwealth, members of the organisation may no longer be able to exercise peer pressure on Mugabe. Even then, Zimbabwe remains a member of other relevant international organisations such as the Southern African Development Community, African Union etc.
Leaders of these organisations should persuade Mugabe to retrace his steps. President Olusegun Obasanjo’s report to the recent CHOGM on his efforts at reconciling the differences between the Zimbabwe government and opposition raises the hope of fresh elections in Zimbabwe. This will reduce President Mugabe’s term of office and probably open up the political space. Anti-democratic arm-twisting, manipulation of the ballot and constitution for the purpose of sit-tightism is totally anachronistic in the post-Cold-War world where popular pressure for change has swept away one-party dictatorships and compelled truly multi-party elections in a number of countries.
Again, if President Mugabe is no longer confident of being voted into power in a free and fair election, it may well mean the calculation of Zimbabweans that he has nothing more to contribute to the growth and development of their country after his 23 years in power.