Chogm sees chinks in solidarity armour

TWO importan

t meetings of Commonwealth foreign ministers are taking place in New York this week on the fringe of the 58th United Nations General Assembly.

Commonwealth foreign ministers met yesterday in line with a decision by Commonwealth Heads of Government at their meeting in Coolum, Australia, in March 2002, that the secretary-general “explore opportunities for greater interaction among Commonwealth foreign ministers”. They met last year in the wings of the General Assembly gathering and decided to meet annually thereafter.

On Saturday members of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group on the Harare Declaration meet to review the situation in the countries on its agenda and consider its report to Chogm 2003. CMAG has held three meetings since its reconstitution by heads of government at the Coolum Chogm. It is chaired by the foreign minister of Botswana, Lt-Gen Mompati Merafhe. The other members are the foreign ministers of Australia, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, India, Malta, Nigeria and Samoa.

Nigeria has already said it will not be inviting President Mugabe, who is also in New York this weekend for the General Assembly meeting, to attend the December Chogm in Abuja. It was clear his presence would disrupt the proceedings as other heads of government would stay away in protest.

Despite energetic attempts in the state media to blame Australian prime minister John Howard for the decision to bar Mugabe, and thereby to portray it as a white versus black issue, it was in fact the Nigerian government, as Chogm host, which made the decision.

Both Zimbabwe and Pakistan were not invited because they are still under suspension for violating the Harare Declaration, Nigeria’s under-secretary in charge of international organisations, Gbenga Ashiru, said.

It is unlikely the Nigerians would have made such an important decision without consulting other key members. President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa would certainly have been informed. South Africa last week said it would abide by Nigeria’s decision.

But not before its officials had made a number of maladroit statements, including a misdirected attack on Australia by Aziz Pahad.

Mbeki told parliament last week that he felt the suspension was invalid because it should have been lifted at the close of the 12-month period in March.

This would indicate a breach of the accord reached in Pretoria in February when Mbeki and Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo agreed to continue acting in tandem on Zimbabwe. After that meeting, Obasanjo wrote to Howard claiming the situation in Zimbabwe had improved.

If Nigeria has now said Mugabe cannot attend because Zimbabwe is suspended, it would indicate Obasanjo accepts the reasons for that suspension. It might also suggest he accepts being misled by Zimbabwean assurances reflected in his letter to Howard.

It is clear there has been no material change in Zimbabwe except for the worse. The youth militia still has a free rein, as the recent local government polls showed. The military is still involved in running elections. The registrar-general’s office is an instrument of the president, and the courts have declined to uphold rights which the constitution guarantees.

The closure of the Daily News has deprived Zimbabweans of their right to make an informed choice about their future, a fundamental principle of the Harare Declaration and the Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme.

Furthermore, it was a requirement of the Commonwealth Troika in suspending Zimbabwe in March last year that Harare engage with the Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon in resolving the problems that led to Zimbabwe’s suspension.

Far from doing that, the government has actually blocked McKinnon from coming here. Why should Mbeki suppose that Zimbabwe’s suspension should have been dropped at the end of the 12-month period in March this year when none of the conditions he and Obasanjo, as Troika members, set out have been met?

The closure of the Daily News shows the government still believes it can get away with repression because it has the backing of other African states. Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy has become a carte blanche for incorrigible misrule. There has been no change in Harare of attitude or behaviour, or indeed any regard for the basic principles for which the Commonwealth stands.

In the circumstances it would be unconscionable for Commonwealth leaders to allow Mugabe to flaunt his violation of the Commonwealth’s core values at its meeting in December. Obasanjo, after a year of ducking the issue, finally made the right decision. Mbeki was left to catch up.

Chinks are appearing in the solidarity armour. We can expect them to widen over the next few months.

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