‘Working with Zimbabwe was never going to be easy’

Donald McKinnon

Shaking up the Secretariat

Former Secretary-General Don McKinnon revolutionised Marlborough House during his tenure, increasing the turnover of senior staff and cutting the organisation’s spending to bring about a more dynamic working atmosphere. He tells Global how he was able to persuade the leaders of Pakistan and Fiji to bring their policies more in line with Commonwealth values, but could make little headway with Zimbabwe

Don McKinnon shares a joke with former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo

Sir Donald McKinnon, better known as Don, became the Commonwealth’s fourth Secretary-General in 2000, serving for two terms until 2008. Now living back in his native New Zealand, he came over to London to launch his Commonwealth memoir In the Ring. I caught up with him, to quiz him about some of the issues he raises in his book.

Why, I venture, did he want a job with the Commonwealth, after a successful career in politics including becoming New Zealand’s longest-serving Minister of Foreign Affairs?

“To me, nine years for one person to be Foreign Minister was long enough – I was beginning to see issues come around for the second and third time,” he explains. “Having a taste of Commonwealth activities, I knew enough to find the opportunity attractive”.

Did he expect to be elected?

“From comments by various Commonwealth leaders, I could see that there was a reasonable possibility, providing I was able to convince enough key people.”

The job itself brought an array of challenges, McKinnon admits. “The nature of engagement with the membership was changing, and I felt much could be done to restore the image of the Commonwealth. Having been a Foreign Minister for so long, I couldn’t think of a better background for the job.”

We turn to Zimbabwe. It was an issue that consumed his early years as SG and could have denied him re-election in Abuja, in 2003. Was Zimbabwe’s departure from the Commonwealth inevitable?

“Working with Zimbabwe was never going to be easy,” he muses. “I remember, in 1997, Zimbabwe’s Foreign Minister, Stan Mudenge, making it very clear to me that the problems Zimbabwe faced could see their government doing some things that would be a contravention of Commonwealth values.”

Could the problem have been resolved before 2000? “Not likely. A collision course was inevitable once the UK government decided that they weren’t going to pay out to white farmers in order to make land available to black Zimbabwean farmers. Also, with tobacco prices falling, war veterans getting more agitated and Mugabe’s budgetary situation becoming intolerable, clashes were inevitable. Despite the best efforts of ourselves, and many others – particularly [President] Obasanjo [of Nigeria] – nothing was achieved. At no stage did Mugabe believe that he would be prevented from attending a CHOGM on the African continent, nor criticised by other African leaders. The reality was sad, but a good outcome for the Commonwealth.”

I comment that, at the time, Zimbabwe complained of ‘double standards’ – that it was being more harshly judged by the Commonwealth than, say, Nigeria or Pakistan, given similar evidence of vote-rigging and political fraud. Wasn’t that a fair point?

“No,” is his emphatic reply. “The great strength of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group was that the spread of membership meant that everyone had a say and could treat issues in a balanced way. We were always conscious that the African community was looking at the Asian community and vice versa on these issues all the time. However, when it came to the monitoring of elections, the greater criticism was directed at Zimbabwe. The violence actively supported by the government of Zimbabwe against members of the opposition MDC was far beyond anything that happened in Pakistan or in Nigeria and that was underlined very firmly by the Commonwealth Observer Mission.”

But he does have one qualification: “It can’t be ignored that the UK government treated Pakistan and its leader far more positively than Zimbabwe and its leader, even though both were suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth.”

I remark that he had spent a lot of time, as Secretary-General, on ‘political’ issues. “Yes,” he responds: “it wasn’t expected, but Fiji, Zimbabwe and Pakistan created a very large demand on the Secretariat’s staff. I believe that in all this we had a measure of success – except Zimbabwe. To me, the important challenge was to uphold Commonwealth values. It was very clear to me that if the SG, the Secretariat and even the Commonwealth were to be at all relevant, I had to be active in support of those principles. But before any action could be taken, the SG has to make contact with the appropriate people, beneath the radar, in the hope of changing attitudes before issues become more complex and public. It does take time and considerable persuasion to convince a leader that their country is on the wrong course.”

Would the newly-enhanced terms of reference used by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) help in future? “In many cases, yes; but the new criteria will also have the capacity to delay action in some areas.”

I then ask him about working with Heads of Government. At times, his memoirs reveal frank speaking and, sometimes, brittle relations. How did he strike the balance between being a ‘secretary’ and a ‘general’? He replied: “You always had to have a very good relationship with all Heads of Government. Many times you needed them to give you support for the very serious, but delicate, missions you were carrying out. You always had to portray yourself as being a very good secretary – but like any good soldier, you carried a general’s baton behind your back.”

He seemed to have a particular problem with the UK government, whether prime ministers, ministers or officials. “The UK government didn’t really have a positive attitude towards the Commonwealth,” he contends. “Many Brit politicians and officials see us – whether New Zealanders or Australians – as transplanted Brits, and therefore easy to deal with. But we are different and see things a bit differently.”

But was he not born in the UK? “Yes, but of New Zealand parents. Being born in a stable doesn’t make you a horse!” So why does he think the British weren’t more positive about Commonwealth membership?

“The international issues for the UK were dominated by the US relationship, Europe, and the Middle East. Anything else was below the salt,” he conjectures. He reminds me of the oft-quoted 2006 figures, adding: “Every UK taxpayer paid £53 per year to Europe; £10 a year to the United Nations; £2 to NATO; and the Commonwealth got 17p. That’s hardly a strong commitment!”

On a more personal level, did he see a British hand in the plot to deny him a second term in Abuja? “Yes, I heard evidence that they had told Sri Lanka that if there was support for their candidate, the UK would move in that direction,” he admits. “But Blair said otherwise, and that’s what counts. The greatest support the Commonwealth has in British politics is always in Parliament, no longer in the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office].”

Politics aside, I ask McKinnon about the importance of development. “I was passionate about development, because the more strongly we pushed developing countries on governance issues, the more we needed to help with development. Making sure their Commonwealth membership was well balanced was the key, and assisting on trade negotiations was but one initiative.”

And small states? “I was delighted we were able to achieve a much higher status for small states within the World Bank. That translated through to many other organisations also prepared to see them differently.” He adds: “One of the greatest challenges facing small states is the loss of good and qualified people. The developed states, being recipients, never felt much guilt about this, unfortunately.”

On the Commonwealth Secretariat, how important was shaking up the organisation and its budgets? “Many changes had to take place, particularly getting a greater turnover of senior staff,” he replies. “When I arrived I never felt that there was much energy in the place and I was able to prove, after three years, that a constant renewal of senior staff brought in new enthusiasm, new ideas and innovation. That soon began to trickle down to other staff. Also, overall expenditure was running ahead of income by three to four per cent a year, accommodated only by constant staff reductions. That was totally unsustainable.”

But could some of the bruising clashes with staff have been avoided? “My experience, and not only in the Secretariat, tells me that people do not readily embrace change,” he argues. “You don’t have to turn an organisation upside down more than once every ten years, but between those major shake-ups you need to have constant smaller changes to ensure people are working to their optimum. The issues with staff could not have been avoided, given the magnitude of the changes ultimately proposed and adopted. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs!”

McKinnon believes that strong leadership is critical to the success of the Commonwealth. “The role of Head of the Commonwealth is, and will always remain, not just titular. The mere presence of the Queen will always have a profound effect on those political participants at CHOGMs.”

He is less sure about the Chair-in-Office. “It is still very immature. It is important that the Secretary-General ensures that the Chair knows exactly what his or her role should be.”

But could member governments themselves do more? “In my experience, I found most Heads of Government ready to admit that they did not make the most of their Commonwealth membership,” he concedes.

Finally, how does he see the future of the Commonwealth? He is upbeat. “It will remain important and useful as long as all its members are prepared to participate. It must remain relevant to the issues it addresses and to the solutions it proposes.”

He finishes: “Whatever it does, it must have credibility in the eyes of Secretariat staff, member governments, Commonwealth taxpayers and international organisations. Though not necessarily in that order.”

Interview by Stuart Mole


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