AFTER allowing a wave of authoritarian regimes to become members in recent years, the Commonwealth and member states such as Canada are now pondering one of their toughest dilemmas: whether to approve Zimbabwe’s bid to re-join their club.
As he prepares for an election this year, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has become even more repressive than his notorious predecessor, Robert Mugabe, crushing opposition meetings and imprisoning activists.
But after other autocrats were permitted to join, the Commonwealth might now find it difficult to draw the line at Zimbabwe.
A high-level delegation, sent by the Commonwealth secretariat to Zimbabwe last November to study the situation, met Mnangagwa and praised the country for its “very impressive progress” – but provided little evidence for the comment.
Its findings are now being drafted in an “informal assessment report,” but the process is veiled in complete secrecy.
“Please note that the informal assessment reports are restricted to Commonwealth member governments and are not for public consumption,” said a spokesperson for the Commonwealth secretariat in London, who did not give her full name.
Canada, too, is declining to say whether Zimbabwe should be readmitted to the Commonwealth, although its diplomats have been discussing the issue informally for months.
“Canada is aware of Zimbabwe’s interest in rejoining the Commonwealth,” said James Emmanuel Wanki, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, in reply to questions from The Globe and Mail.
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“Commonwealth member states would only be asked about Zimbabwe’s membership after the fact-finding mission delivers its report and the secretary-general of the Commonwealth issues a recommendation,” he said.
Among the key criteria for the readmission decision, according to Wanki, will be the “core principles and values of the Commonwealth, including democracy, rule of law, human rights and good governance.”
But critics say the Commonwealth already jettisoned these principles in recent years when it granted membership to some of the world’s longest-ruling authoritarian regimes, including those of Rwanda, Gabon and Togo.
Last year’s Commonwealth heads of government summit was held in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, despite evidence that the Rwandan security agencies have imprisoned and killed dissidents at home and abroad.
Zimbabwe is seen as a crucial test case because it was one of the highest-profile governments to be targeted for action by the Commonwealth.
The southern African nation was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002 after widespread controversy over its farm seizures, tainted elections and other human rights abuses.
Mnangagwa announced in 2018 that his government would seek to rejoin the Commonwealth — a bid supported by allies such as South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
With some polls suggesting that he is less popular than the main opposition CCC leader Nelson Chamisa, the election expected in July or August could be the most violent and repressive in the country’s history, analysts say.
“Since the 2017 coup, there is a deepening authoritarianism in Zimbabwe, even deeper than under the Mugabe regime, and we’re seeing a process of systematically attempting to dismantle the opposition and close down space for civil society activists,” said Brian Raftopoulos, a Zimbabwean scholar at the University of Cape Town, at a panel organised on Monday by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London.
A recently introduced law on non-governmental organisations, for example, “will effectively give the state the ability to enter and take control of any civil society organisation that it considers a threat and place massive control over their funding and resources,” Raftopoulos said.
Authoritarian rulers believe they have more leverage over the Commonwealth today because the group is under pressure to compete for influence in Africa with autocratic powers such as China and Russia, he told the panel. But throwing open its doors to dictators would carry a heavy price, he said.
“If you’re going to allow this to happen, there will be consequences for the Commonwealth. It will open up a whole new set of possibilities for authoritarian regimes to get away with this kind of politics. Simply letting Zimbabwe into the Commonwealth without dealing with these issues will only make the problem deeper.”
In British parliamentary debates, some politicians have argued that Commonwealth membership could nudge Zimbabwe in a more democratic direction.
Lord Sonny Leong, in a debate in the House of Lords last month, said the Commonwealth could “change hearts and minds, and ultimately national laws” if countries such as Zimbabwe are inside the group. “If we are too intransigent, we risk driving Zimbabwe to look elsewhere for international allies,” he said.
Others strongly disagreed. Lord Jonathan Oates said the Commonwealth’s reputation would suffer “severe damage” if it readmitted a country that was “in flagrant violation” of the Commonwealth’s democratic principles.
Respected Zimbabwean political analyst Eldred Masunungure yesterday said the country was not ready for readmission into the club of former British colonies.
Masunungure said the forthcoming elections should be the yardstick to gauge the country’s preparedness for readmission.
“Zimbabwe must demonstrate adherence and respect the principles of the declaration. The key indicator will be the quality of elections that are going to be conducted in a few months’ time. It should show whether Zimbabwe has matured or has the qualities to be readmitted into the commonwealth. Post-election and pre-election period will be the best to measure if Zimbabwe is ready. There is no other indicator that is tangible that would determine whether Zimbabwe is ripe to be readmitted,” he said.
Another political analyst Rejoice Ngwenya said Zimbabwe had done little to be considered for re-admission.
“The conditions for admittance were clearly articulated. If you look at the top three conditions, property rights, human rights and food governance; we are nowhere near that. We are far below the standards. Our hands are too dirty for us to qualify,” he said.