As on so many previous occasions, this past weekend’s Commonwealth meeting should have been another grand but uneventful get-together of 54 nations that were once a part of the British Empire. Thanks to Zimbabwe’s strongman, Robert Mugabe, however, the meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, marked a watershed in the organization’s history. Mugabe’s decision to withdraw Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth will isolate him further and encourage his domestic opponents. However, it also raises questions about the future role of the Commonwealth.
Commonwealth membership does not bring with it any significant economic and political advantages. It is largely an exclusive club and a perfect human rights record was never a precondition for joining. Throughout its history, the Commonwealth often overlooked transgressions against freedom and democracy among its members. In fact, the paucity of principled decision-making on the part of the Commonwealth is telling: Zimbabwe’s suspension shows just how tyrannical Mugabe has become over the last few years. At the same time, suspension from the club is something Mugabe simply cannot take.
The Commonwealth became concerned with Mugabe’s oppressive rule in June 2000, when his troops suppressed the opposition and delivered Mugabe’s ZANU-PF a bloody victory. In March 2002, Mugabe used still more head-cracking to get re-elected, for the fifth time, as Zimbabwe’s ruler. Citing election irregularities, the Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe’s membership for one year.
That suspension came up for renewal during the Abuja meeting and Mugabe tried his best to get Zimbabwe back in the Commonwealth. First, he led an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the reelection of Don McKinnon, the former New Zealand foreign minister, as secretary general of the Commonwealth. McKinnon has been Mugabe’s outspoken critic in the past and Mugabe wanted to replace him with someone more sympathetic.
Then, Mugabe tried to split the Commonwealth along racial lines. Calling Prime Ministers Howard of Australia and Blair of the United Kingdom “racist” played well in some African countries, but did not produce the support Mugabe wanted. In Abuja, Zimbabwe’s suspension was renewed and Mugabe decided to spare himself further indignities by withdrawing.
Mugabe is not used to being criticized. For quarter of a century he has been revered as a revolutionary hero, who brought majority rule to Rhodesia and led the “frontline” states, which opposed the apartheid regime in South Africa. That said, he is also the man, who gave Zimbabwe Marxism, instituted a one-party state and used North Korean-trained troops to murder 20,000 people in the Matabeleland.
As a result of his economic mismanagement, 50 percent of Zimbabweans face starvation. Inflation, which runs at 500 percent a year is kept at that level only because the country’s central bank periodically runs out of ink and currency-paper. Meanwhile, Mugabe recently moved to a new $6 million villa on the outskirts of Harare. Nonetheless, Mugabe’s rule is coming to an end. He is sick, 79 years old and will either die or eventually be overthrown. The only question is how soon that will happen and how many more lives will have to be ruined in the process.
A true unknown, on the other hand, is the future of the Commonwealth. The Abuja meeting exposed the organization’s weaknesses. Countries that favored suspension, such as Great Britain and Australia, came from outside of Africa. States that favored re-admission, such as South Africa and Mozambique, were African. If the African bloc could muster enough votes, Mugabe would now be back in the Commonwealth.
The indifference of African leaders towards African dictators raises questions about their commitment to democracy and the rule of law. How is the world to take seriously African development initiatives, such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, when good governance, essential to the program, is ignored? As for the Commonwealth, is the Zimbabwean episode to be understood as the first step on the organization’s way to transform itself into a club of democracies? If that is the case, then the Commonwealth may well become more ideologically — but less territorially — cohesive in the future.
That may not be a bad thing. Mugabe’s behavior shows that dictators — no matter how deluded — are sensitive to how others view them. The worst thing that democracies can do is gloss over human rights abuses and hope that soft talking and the red-carpet treatment will change the minds of tyrants. Expelling them from decent society, on the other hand, may be the sort of action that aspiring democratic institutions, such as the Commonwealth, ought to do more of.