Commonwealth’s moment of truth in Abuja


Dumisani Muleya


THE Commonwealth faces one of its sternest tests in recent years over the suppurating Zimbabwe crisis during its annual summit in December in Nigeria.


Zimbabwe, on suspension from t

he 54-member club since last year’s fraudulent presidential election, will have its status reviewed at the key Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) in Abuja.


A diplomatic clash between Harare’s allies and Commonwealth leaders opposed to President Robert Mugabe’s political repression and his human rights abuses has been simmering for some time and now looks certain to boil over ahead of the summit.


Commonwealth countries, divided along ideological lines, are firmly set on a collision course over Zimbabwe’s readmission to the club of mainly former British colonies.


The club’s leaders have of late been issuing conflicting statements, further fuelling the intensifying battle of wills that threatens to split the historic grouping into two political camps.


Some Commonwealth countries, especially African states, apparently want to follow a policy of appeasement in which they pamper Mugabe with revolutionary rhetoric and propitiate him with solidarity messages in the hope that he will be amenable to dialogue and change. This is the line adopted by Southern African Development Community members.


Others want to read Mugabe the riot act and confront him head-on to force him to end his tyranny and embrace reform. But so far Mugabe’s regime has remained obdurate in the face of both initiatives.


The divided approach within the Commonwealth was evident in recent statements on Zimbabwe by regional groupings of the club.


Pacific leaders meeting in Auckland, New Zealand, on August 16 expressed “grave concern about the situation in Zimbabwe, in particular continuing serious human rights abuses and the worsening economic crisis affecting its people”.


They registered “strong disappointment that their 2002 call for the rule of law to be restored in Zimbabwe, for political dialogue to be resumed, and for political violence to be brought to an end remained unheeded”.


The Pacific Commonwealth leaders hoped that the Abuja Chogm “would permit an objective discussion of Zimbabwe’s current suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth, including further action that may be required to address the deteriorating situation”.


The Pacific Commonwealth countries include Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.


By contrast, Southern African Development Community (Sadc) leaders who met in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for their annual summit last week expressed solidarity with Zimbabwe, saying Western countries must lift targeted sanctions imposed on the Harare regime.


Sadc countries include South Africa, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mauritius, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.


Although Sadc leaders in Tanzania adopted a mutual security pact that allows them to intervene in regional conflicts, they repeated wholesale Mugabe’s now-familiar mantras on land reform and sanctions.


The African Union avoided the Zimbabwe issue during its annual summit in July in Maputo, Mozambique. Mugabe was instead appointed one of the five vice-chairs amid speculation South African President Thabo Mbeki, who was outgoing AU chairman, played a key role in that move. Harare naturally interpreted the action as an expression of good-fellowship.


Like the apartheid regime in South Africa trying to fight sanctions, Sadc leaders claimed in Dar es Salaam that the measures were ineffective and hurt the poor. They have also called on Western countries to stop interference in Zimbabwe’s domestic affairs in their bid to protect Mugabe.


After receiving support from his allies, Mugabe will go to the Abuja summit with his hackles up and in a stronger position compared to last year when he braved the meeting in Coolum, Australia.


Mugabe also has another weapon in his diplomatic arsenal — the current informal talks between his ruling Zanu PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The talks, especially if they resume towards this month-end as reported in the Zimbabwe Independent last week, are most certainly going to be used as evidence that the situation is changing and therefore Harare’s Commonwealth suspension has to be lifted.


Zanu PF and the MDC have been talking behind the scenes for some time in a bid to resume talks that collapsed in May last year. The unofficial dialogue has been used to relieve international pressure on Mugabe.


During United States President George Bush’s visit to Africa in July, Mbeki consistently said, much to the disbelief of many Zimbabweans then, that the two parties were talking and dialogue should be given a chance. This was to prevent Bush from taking further measures against Mugabe. It worked.


Despite his belligerent stance prior to his visit across the African continent, Bush emerged from his meeting with Mbeki in Pretoria in early July subdued and apparently converted to the path of “quiet diplomacy”.


The same pretext was reportedly used by Mbeki to defend Mugabe when he met British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London in July and when Zimbabwe was removed from the AU agenda.


It was also applied in Tanzania last week. Prior to that, it was exploited in the run-up to the G8 summit in Evian, France, where Mbeki and his co-New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) promoters gathered to market their continental economic recovery project.


Without a doubt, the talks flag will be waved in Abuja where ironically a deal between Harare and London — the Abuja Agreement — to resolve the Zimbabwe crisis, was agreed in 2001.


It was also at Abuja that the Commonwealth troika, comprising Mbeki, John Howard of Australia and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, clashed over Zimbabwe’s suspension in September last year. After agreeing to review the situation in March this year, Mbeki and Obasanjo made a somersault and started demanding the lifting of the suspension.


But Howard and Commonwealth secretary-general Don McKinnon stood their ground and firmly rejected the move. The renewed suspension was later justified by McKinnon’s report on Zimbabwe that showed the situation had not changed, except for the worse, since the country was suspended in March 2002. Flimsy subsequent protests by Harare and obscure Sadc diplomats did not change anything.


The troika, which has always been split on the issue, consists of Mbeki as the previous Commonwealth chair, Howard as the incumbent and Obasanjo who is the incoming chair. There have been attempts by Mugabe’s spin-doctors to claim the leaders were randomly chosen.


Howard, who recently provoked indignation in Harare after describing Mugabe as an “unelected despot”, will rely on the McKinnon report which raised an array of issues that Zimbabwe was asked to address when it was suspended but has not done so.


Issues that Harare is supposed to address include political dialogue and national reconciliation; implementation of the Commonwealth election observer group recommendations to reform electoral laws; promotion, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme, of a transparent, equitable and sustainable land reform; dealing with the food crisis; and tackling the economic crisis.


However, there have been no significant moves by Mugabe and his regime to comply. The only issue in which there seems to have been some sort of progress is on the political dialogue front although it is not yet clear how the talks will unfold. Zanu PF is talking to the MDC largely because it has realised there is no room anymore for zero-sum politics. It has to compromise on fundamental issues or go down with the whole country.


Otherwise, Zimbabwe has simply not complied with the demands and principles of the Harare Declaration on democracy, human rights and elections.


Against this background, it would be difficult for Mugabe and his allies to counter Howard’s argument that nothing has changed so far, save for further economic deterioration and repression.


As the McKinnon report, which is still relevant, observed: “Overall the general political, economic and social situation in Zimbabwe has deteriorated since March 2002. Regrettably to date there has been no positive response by Zimbabwe.”


Mugabe and his lieutenants are currently too seized with the battle for political survival to be able to attend to the national emergency.


The Abuja Chogm will be an important test of whether Commonwealth leaders are prepared to stand by the principles enunciated in the Harare Declaration or whether they fall for Mbeki and Obasanjo’s realpolitik.