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Zim Commonwealth return depends on elections



THE British House of Lords says Zimbabwe’s re-admission to the Commonwealth should be based on how the country holds its general election this year, and an improvement in the human rights situation.


Zimbabwe quit the Commonwealth in 2003 after clashes between the club of mostly former British colonies and the long-time ruler Robert Mugabe over policy conflicts, human rights abuses and violation of the group’s democratic values, and has been eyeing re-admission.

Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe from Independence in 1980 to 2017 when he was toppled by a military coup, came under criticism over disputed elections and violent land seizures from white farmers.

This week, the House of Lords debated Zimbabwe’s overtures to rejoin the Commonwealth, saying there is a need to scrutinise the country’s progress on human rights and democratic governance ahead of the 2023 elections.

Lord Jonathan Oates, a British Liberal Democrat, initiated a debate on Zimbabwe’s readmission bid without reforms,  saying it would severely damage the Commonwealth’s reputation and the country’s struggle for democracy and human rights.

In the debate, Lord Sonny Leong of the UK Labour party said the country has not been doing enough to correct the human rights situation.

“Although there have been some positive developments in recent years, they have not been as significant, rapid or numerous as many of us had hoped, especially post-president Mugabe. The country retains the death penalty and the rights and freedoms of women and girls are unequal, as they are for the LGBT community,” Lord Leong said.

“However, with Zimbabwe holding general elections this year, I draw your Lordships’ attention to the democratic process in the country. Official observers were critical of how the last elections were conducted in 2018.

“A colleague of mine who served on a Commonwealth observer group told me that he ‘personally witnessed scenes of violence and direct intimidation by government forces’ and noted that an ‘unlevel playing field’ had been created, which ‘the government considers it to its benefit to maintain’,” he said.

Lord Sonny also highlighted concerns about political violence and enforced disappearances.

“In the context of Zimbabwe’s application to rejoin the Commonwealth, the 2023 election could and should be an opportunity for the (Zimbabwean) government to demonstrate their democratic credentials.

Another parliamentarian, Baroness Kate Hoey, said Zimbabwe should not be re-admitted to the Commonwealth before the 2023 elections as little has been done to correct the human rights rot.

“The rumours are getting stronger that the Commonwealth secretary-general wants Zimbabwe back in before such elections,” said she said. “I hope that it is no more than a rumour, because the country has made no progress on human rights since it was suspended in 2003. Anyone stepping out of line is beaten up and arrested.”

“The coming year will be incredibly difficult in Zimbabwe. We will see a volatile social, political and economic situation. I do not see how anyone could think that getting Zimbabwe back into the Commonwealth before those elections would not be used by Zanu PF simply to ensure that its election is carried through with the support of the international community and the Commonwealth. It would be a huge thing. It would give all that publicity to Zanu PF and absolutely no help to the people of Zimbabwe.

“We have had lots of new information recently about the lithium that has been discovered and has now been handed over to Chinese companies to look after. Some 3 000 commercial farms that were taken over and given to Zimbabweans have now been taken back to make a platinum mine.

“All this up-to-date information on the situation shows that the Zimbabwean government, the police and armed forces are combining to plunder Zimbabwe’s resources with disregard for the rule of law and human rights, and it shows how the corrupt Zanu PF elite is able ruthlessly to control every aspect of life,” Baroness Hoey said.

During the debate, Lord Anthony St John of Bletso said the re-admission of Zimbabwe without preconditions being met would reward impunity.

He said while there have been some positive improvements under Mnangagwa, there has been an escalation in corruption and human rights abuses, which discredit the Harare government. 

“Several senior operators in the country have vested interests in maintaining the status quo and, sadly, Zimbabwe has been arresting journalists, including Hopewell Chin’ono, who we all know well, for exposing corruption, along with arresting opposition leaders for fighting tyranny.

“Opposition supporters have been regularly beaten up, as happened just last week in Murehwa, just 110 kilometres from Harare. As noble Lords know, others who have been mentioned have had death threats, particularly the leader of the CCC.

“His supporters have been harassed by the ruling party’s regional leaders. When the evidence of these threats have been presented to the police, absolutely nothing has happened. This is inexcusable,” said Lord St John.

President Mnangagwa has been under fire for stifling the civic space, according to a report by Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) titled Civic Space Contestation Ahead of 2023.

According to the report, national freedom dipped into negative levels in 2021, with a 12.5% deterioration of the state of freedom of the public sphere during President Mnangagwa’s tenure in office, compared to 14.29% under Mugabe in 2017.

In November last year, the government approved amendments to the Criminal Law Codification Act that impose stiff penalties on those accused of campaigning against the country, which is likely to clampdown on human rights activists.

In December, amendments to the Private Voluntary Organisations Bill also sailed through Parliament, which would give the government power to control operations of non-governmental organisations, sparking an outcry from civil society.  

Mnangagwa has tried to manoeuvre his way into the Commonwealth by seeking help from other leaders in the region. Last year, he engaged Rwandan President Paul Kagame to lobby for Zimbabwe’s return to the grouping of mostly former British colonies.

However, in September 2022, Kagame told Mnangagwa that he needed to start convincing Zimbabweans “that things were fine before he convinces the international community” — on the sidelines of the Africa Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) held in Kigali, Rwanda.

“You need to work hard to change the perception, you cannot bribe your way through it, you cannot just sweet talk some people, even if they say ok, we agree with you, things will not be fine.

“The way the people of their own country feel about what is happening, it will always come out and before you even convince anyone from outside so that they cannot have a wrong perception about you, convince your own people.

“Make sure they are with you and say look, whatever you are saying, we feel there is change, so concentrate on making sure your people are involved, they are benefiting, they can themselves push back on this story of perception,” Kagame was quoted as saying at the forum.

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