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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 18:36 GMT
'A defining moment for Africa'
Voting in Zimbabwe
The Commonwealth links democracy with development

The significance of the decision to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth for a year goes far beyond Zimbabwe and the future of the Commonwealth.

The suspension of a medium-sized African country from membership of a powerless club of former British territories sounds the diplomatic equivalent of a yellow card at a friendly football match.

Had Africa's heavyweights chosen solidarity over democracy, Africa would have been left to stew for another decade

But had the troika of President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, his Nigerian counterpart Olusegun Obasanjo, and Prime Minister John Howard of Australia, made the opposite decision, Africa's cause would have been set back a decade.

The Commonwealth's judgement on Zimbabwe was a defining moment for Africa to commit itself to good government.

Africa's own plan for its political and economic future - the New Partnership for African Development, known as Nepad - was at stake.

Democracy commitment

Promoted by Mr Mbeki, Mr Obasanjo and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, this is a pact which commits African leaders to better government, respect for human rights, democracy and good economic policies.

Robert Mugabe
Mugabe has refused to compromise

In exchange, the rest of the world is considering coming up with more aid, more debt forgiveness and a commitment to improve access to its markets for Africa's goods.

It is Africa's best - and only - chance of turning itself round. The Americans have made the link quite explicit to South Africa.

They told Mr Mbeki: your attitude to Zimbabwe is a test of your commitment to Nepad.

Had Africa's heavyweights, South Africa and Nigeria, chosen African solidarity over the principles of democracy and human rights, Nepad would have been dead and Africa would have been left to stew for at least another decade.

When they met at Coolum in Australia earlier this month, the Commonwealth heads of government were split over what to do about Zimbabwe.

Britain, New Zealand and Canada pushed for suspension. African rulers, led by Mr Mbeki, were against.

Likely outcome

When Mr Mbeki, President Obasanjo and Mr Howard were mandated as a troika to judge the outcome of the Zimbabwe election, it seemed likely that Mr Mugabe's African peers would not allow him to be sanctioned.

The conditions in Zimbabwe did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors

Commonwealth monitors

The official election monitors from the Organisation of African Unity, the Southern African Development Community and the Governments of Nigeria, South Africa and Namibia came up with verdicts that blessed the election and Mr Mugabe's victory.

The instinct of some African rulers to rally round one of their own at any price, seemed to be prevailing, and several African presidents turned up at Mr Mugabe's inauguration.

This was not a racial split as many suggested. Only the rulers and their courtiers backed Mr Mugabe.

Independent newspapers and radios throughout the continent resounded with denunciations of Mr Mugabe and his stolen election.

Damning verdict

Led by a former military ruler of Nigeria, the Commonwealth election monitors came out with a damming verdict:

President Obasanjo and President Mugabe
African leaders did not close ranks as expected

"The conditions in Zimbabwe did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors."

Whatever their own governments' monitors had told them, the presidents of South Africa and Nigeria were bound by their mandate to base their decision on this verdict.

They had spent Monday in Harare trying to persuade Mr Mugabe to establish a government of national unity and go easy on the opposition. But he did not give them enough.

They made at least one call from London on Tuesday to try to get him to change his mind. In the end they had no choice. They had held out a lifeline to Mr Mugabe and he had not grasped it.

The effect of this judgement on Zimbabwe's leader by his African peers should not be underestimated, but he is unlikely to change course easily.

Disaster zone

Zimbabwe is now a disaster zone in desperate need of food aid for some 3 million hungry citizens.

Zimbabwe food queue
Zimbabwe's food queues are likely to grow longer

While South Africa has the power to cut transport links and power to Zimbabwe, full economic sanctions would only ensure that these people die.

It may, as Mr Mbeki fears, cause an implosion that would take other parts of southern Africa with it. Mr Mbeki and Mr Obasanjo now have the tricky task of forcing Mr Mugabe to resign, to hold new elections, or to share power with the opposition.

They may not succeed, but by formally and publicly sanctioning Zimbabwe they may have saved their own countries and the rest of the continent from a period of ostracism.

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See also:

19 Mar 02 | Africa
01 Feb 02 | Country profiles
07 Mar 02 | Africa
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