Zimbabwe’s Commonwealth eclipse

Stuart Mole

When Robert Mugabe was elected as president of Zimbabwe in 1980, there were celebrations in Commonwealth circles – black majority rule had been achieved and there was constitutional protection for white land owners. Then the farm invasions began and the Commonwealth had to formulate a response

Abuja, December 2003. Every Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) has its own special chemistry – and its capacity for drama and surprise. And the falling to earth of the Commonwealth’s one-time star – Zimbabwe – dominated the summit’s headlines, threatened the tenure of the Secretary-General and shook the Commonwealth to breaking point.

The Commonwealth had last met in Africa in 1999, in Durban. That CHOGM celebrated the end of apartheid in South Africa. It marked the successful conclusion of an issue that had aggravated and obsessed the Commonwealth for much of its existence as a modern international association. But, by 1999, Nelson Mandela – the inspirational symbol of resistance to racial segregation – had led the African National Congress to victory in multi-racial elections. He had served a four-year term as President, binding the deep wounds of enmity and injustice. The baton had now passed to his successor – Thabo Mbeki. Yet, as the Commonwealth celebrated, another emblematic issue was developing in intensity.

The election, in March 1980, of Robert Gabriel Mugabe, and his ZANU-PF party, to govern newly-independent Zimbabwe was a happy outcome for many after years of heartache and struggle. Rhodesia – especially since Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 – had long been a running sore in the Commonwealth body politic; and a painful reminder that the Commonwealth’s professed belief in political and racial equality was far from being universally achieved.

Mugabe’s victory provided the Commonwealth with the reassurance and satisfaction it craved. Genuine black majority rule had at last been achieved, and entrenched clauses in the constitution gave the white minority protection, including on land reform, for a transitional ten year period.

Bishop Abel Muzorewa’s United African National Council was routed, much to the UK government’s surprise. But there was no right-wing backlash and no army ‘coup’. Mugabe spoke words of healing and reconciliation, all the more remarkable for the sometimes harsh treatment he had endured as a prisoner of the Rhodesian authorities. There was also the reassuring bulk of Joshua Nkomo, despite the fact that he was a Communist. Although the junior partner in the governing coalition, his largely Ndebele-based party was a guarantor of black heterogeneity, at least. If not a fairy tale ending, it was certainly scored as a solid Commonwealth achievement. That convenient myth was shattered in Matabeleland three years later. The province, for years the stronghold of Nkomo’s ZAPU and once again at odds with its ZANU rivals, was laid waste by the North Koreantrained Fifth Brigade. Perhaps 20,000 may have died, including women and children. The world averted its eyes, as ZANU devoured ZAPU and the true nature of Mugabe’s rule began to emerge.

Yet, in the eyes of many, land reform was the issue. Rhodesia had only begun to be settled by whites after 1890. After the Second World War, in particular, large numbers of demobilised British servicemen were allocated prime agricultural land. For them, it was an undreamed of path to property and wealth. But it only worsened a gross injustice where, by the time of the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement, the whites (never more than five per cent of the total) owned 80 per cent of the land (largely the most productive). Sonny Ramphal, then Commonwealth Secretary-General, insisted that the US and the UK provide undertakings for the purchase of land from white farmers, and this was agreed. Some progress was made in the decade that followed. But a decisive turning point came with the UK election of 1997, when the Labour Party under Tony Blair won a landslide victory. In reply to the Zimbabwe President’s request for greater UK impetus behind land reform, Clare Short, the international development minister, wrote an explosive letter. Citing her Irish extraction, Short said new Labour would not be bound by British colonial legacies. No more UK money would be provided to compensate white farmers.

Angry and humiliated, and beset by war veterans demanding better pensions and land, Mugabe sought revenge. The slide into illegal farm seizures, bloodshed and chaos had begun.

Zimbabwe was an issue that beset Don McKinnon from the outset. Within a month of taking office as Secretary-General, the former New Zealand foreign minister had travelled to Harare to meet Mugabe. Taking tea in the State House, they talked about the prospects for land reform and fair elections. But, with violence and farm invasions worsening, it was to be their last substantive tête-à-tête.

The Commonwealth did what it could: foreign ministers met in Abuja in September 2001 to agree a process both to re-start ordered land reform and address the violence and human rights abuses that were fouling Zimbabwe’s democracy. Ministers also travelled to Harare, with McKinnon, to see Mugabe. But, by the beginning of 2002, the Abuja process had got nowhere. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), now sidelined from any active role and shunned by Mugabe, declared: “The situation in Zimbabwe constitutes a serious and persistent violation of the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values and the rule of law.”

On the eve of the elections, Commonwealth leaders met in Coolum, Australia and addressed the Zimbabwe issue. Fearing the worst, and with a Commonwealth Observer Group (COG), headed by former Nigerian President Abdulsalami Abubakar, already in the field, they made contingency plans. A Troika would be formed, comprising the current Chairman-in-Office (the Australian, John Howard), the previous chair (South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki) and the next chair (Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria). In the event of an adverse COG report, the Troika was expected to take immediate action.

Between 9 and 11 March 2002, Zimbabwe voted. Although Mugabe claimed victory with 56 per cent of the vote, his MDC challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai, pushed him to a tight finish. While the Organisation of African Unity declared the election “transparent, credible, free and fair”, strong condemnation came from the Commonwealth and other international and local observers. The European Union, having already clashed with Mugabe, had pulled its observer team out of Zimbabwe prior to the elections, and announced sanctions against the ruling elite. The COG, in contrast, reported that the campaign “was marred by a high level of politically motivated violence and intimidation”. This had created “a climate of fear and suspicion”, they said. Coupled with other notable failings, the COG concluded “that the conditions in Zimbabwe did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors”.

The response of the Troika was immediate, suspending Zimbabwe from the councils of the Commonwealth for one year.

This apparent unanimity concealed deep Commonwealth divisions. Many Commonwealth leaders, particularly in Africa, saw justice over land as the great unresolved issue. Four thousand white farmers still owned 80 per cent of the land. This needed to be tackled, even if the means were unpalatable. Mugabe continued to be lauded as a liberation hero and respected father of African nationalism.

Others, in particular from the old Commonwealth, considered Zimbabwe as primarily a governance issue. Many Zimbabweans cared more for jobs and a productive economy than land, they argued. Abuses of human rights and democracy were having disastrous financial consequences, with rampant inflation and an economy in freefall. In the UK, media coverage dwelt on the brutality meted out to white farmers but little mention was made of the devastating impact of the farm invasions on the rural black population.

By the time of the Abuja CHOGM, in December 2003, there had been little progress. Zimbabwe remained suspended and the main battle lines were drawn: would that suspension be lifted – or renewed? That was not all. Don McKinnon had once swapped cricketing stories with Mugabe over tea. Now he was a detested figure, in particular for announcing a continuation of Zimbabwe’s year-long suspension until the CHOGM. With the help of South Africa, Zimbabwe planned a ‘decapitation’ strategy. McKinnon’s re-election in Abuja for a second four-year term was reckoned a formality, though one Foreign and Commonwealth Office official had let slip that the UK would be willing to back an anti-McKinnon candidate.

With days to go, Lakshman Kadirgamar, a former foreign minister of Sri Lanka, emerged as a surprise challenger to McKinnon. Neither Kadirgamar nor his proposer, the Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga, appeared in Abuja, and it was left to Thabo Mbeki to marshal the forces of opposition.

Mbeki attempted to delay the vote until the end of the meeting but Heads opted instead for an early ballot. With a reluctant candidate and all too transparent motives, the ‘Zimbabwe’ candidate mustered a reported 11 votes, against 40 for McKinnon.

But the substantive argument was not resolved so swiftly. At the outset, a committee of Heads, chaired by the Jamaican Prime Minister PJ Patterson, was charged with finding a consensus. After two meetings, the committee reported to the Heads-only Retreat. Despite the authority and skill of the chair, President Obasanjo, Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders fought stubbornly. In the end, it was PJ Patterson, in a masterful intervention, who urged the bridging of two “almost irreconcilable” positions so that there could be unity. SADC countries wavered – and Obasanjo was able to announce agreement.

The suspension of Zimbabwe remained.

It was, in McKinnon’s words: “the end of the beginning”. A few days later, Zimbabwe’s departure from the Commonwealth was announced, and Mugabe later railed against “that evil organisation”. But a sea-change was now underway in African opinion which would see a far different – and much more robust – pattern of engagement by SADC countries with Zimbabwe in the future. Commonwealth unity had held firm.

The Zimbabwe regime was out of the association; but, like apartheid South Africa before it, the mission for the Commonwealth was now to keep faith with Zimbabwe’s people.

About the author:

Stuart Mole is the senior research fellow of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at London University and former Director of the Secretary-General's Office in the Commonwealth Secretariat


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