International Papers

Out of Africa

Mugabe tries to break up the Commonwealth.

Zimbabwe may be the hottest topic at the Commonwealth of Nations summit this weekend, but the country isn’t invited to the shindig. The conference meetings, which began today, will be dominated by the heated international debate about Zimbabwe’s downward spiral and its recalcitrant leader, Robert Mugabe. Last year the Commonwealth suspended the country from the group in an effort to curb Mugabe’s human rights abuses and corruption. The Commonwealth, an organization composed largely of former British colonies, then created a committee of six nations (evenly divided between Zimbabwe’s friends and foes) to decide whether to keep Zimbabwe out. Some African member nations argue that excluding Mugabe will only hurt ailing Zimbabwe, which suffered another blow when the International Monetary Fund announced its plans to expel the country for defaulting on its loans.

The Commonwealth debate got limited play in Zimbabwe’s stifled media. Reuters reported that the Daily News, an independent paper that the Mugabe regime silenced two months ago, ran a one-off edition today, which included photographs of police brutality against democracy activists and an editorial asking, “If Mugabe does not quit now, how long can he precariously cling to power and at what cost to the tottering and anguished nation?” Meanwhile, the state-controlled Zimbabwe Herald Web site made no mention of the Commonwealth summit, which is being held in Nigeria. It chose instead to cover the Zanu-PF national people’s conference, where “Zimbabweans from all walks of life will be pinning their hopes on the ruling party.”

A second voice of protest appeared in a scathing editorial in the Zimbabwean Independent. It noted the increasingly desperate tone of the government’s pronouncements: “Mugabe has so failed at diplomacy that even his few friends find themselves unable to continue to stand by him, leaving a man who has always loved basking in the limelight of international approval pitifully isolated as his life, power and political career wind down.” The piece lambasted his efforts to paint his rift with the Commonwealth as a case of white countries attacking African sovereignty. He merely wants “the ‘sovereign’ right to clampdown on his foes, to silence alternative voices, to entrench a supine judiciary, to look the other way while his cronies strip national assets, to justify the impoverishment of a people and yet still strut the globe like a respectable leader.”

Nevertheless, several African nations oppose the continued exclusion of Zimbabwe, if only because they feel that isolation will not help the country out of its dire straits. An article in the Guardian described the queen’s message of reconciliation at the conference and noted several African leaders claim that the situation in Zimbabwe is improving.

The debate about Zimbabwe’s future threatens to cause larger rifts in the Commonwealth. Mugabe’s anti-white rhetoric hits a sensitive nerve in an organization with such a history of colonial rule. In a wire report from the South African Independent Online, a regional analyst said, “A lot of African countries have said in private they think this human rights stuff is just a cover for British interests there and they want to resist it. And that brings out a sort of Africanist attitude.” The conflict already led to an effort to replace the Commonwealth’s secretary-general, a New Zealander. That attempt failed, but the Independent suggested that Mugabe’s corrosive influence will continue to destabilize the Commonwealth.