Will Zimbabwe be readmitted to the Commonwealth?

By Farai Shawn Matiashe
Posted on Friday, 24 June 2022 13:07

Heads of government from Commonwealth nations meet in the Rwandan capital Kigali
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson shakes hands with Rwandan President Paul Kagame during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at the office of the President in Kigali, Rwanda 23 June 2022. Dan Kitwood/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

Zimbabwe’s application to be re-admitted to the Commonwealth is in the spotlight at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which is taking place this week in Kigali, Rwanda.

In 2002, the Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe, citing gross human rights violations, a collapse of rule of law and its shrinking democratic space. President Robert Mugabe pulled Harare out of the Commonwealth in 2003.

The country’s current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has been slow to implement political and electoral reforms, and his government has continued with gross human rights violations since taking over from Mugabe through a military coup in November 2017.

Experts weigh in

Sue Onslow, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, says the Commonwealth has been actively considering Zimbabwe’s application to be readmitted. Commonwealth heads of government were in a heated discussion about whether Mnangagwa’s government deserves to be readmitted.

Zimbabwe has a rotten human rights record, which has worsened during the Mnangagwa era

“There is some disagreement between those governments [that] are pressing [for readmission] and others who do not feel that the current […] government has made sufficient progress to meet the Harare Principles,” she tells The Africa Report.

Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, says chances are slim that Zimbabwe will be readmitted to the Commonwealth, a 54-member organisation composed mostly of former British colonies.

“It is in my opinion unlikely that Zimbabwe will be readmitted. It has fulfilled none of the requirements outlined by the report of the Commonwealth Observer Group after the last elections,” he says.

Waiting on reforms

Mnangagwa has yet to implement the recommendations that were made by a Commonwealth team led by Ghana’s former President John Dramani Mahama, who was an observer at the 2018 general polls.

Mahama, who had been deployed by Commonwealth secretary-general Patricia Scotland, said the election process was not credible, inclusive and peaceful because of violence meted out on opposition supporters by the security services and biased coverage by the state media.

  • The Southern African government remains under targeted sanctions from the US and the UK following the death of six people who were shot by the military in Harare on 6 August 2018 during a protest after a delay in the announcement of results by the electoral body.
  • In January 2019, law enforcement agents shot dead 17 people while hundreds were arrested and several women raped after a protest over Mnangagwa’s decision to hike fuel prices by more than 150%.

Why the slow pace of reform?

Daglous Makumbe, a lecturer in the department of political studies at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, says Zimbabwe should not be allowed to rejoin the Commonwealth.

“It will be an abomination for the organisation to readmit Zimbabwe. That is because Zimbabwe has made no strides whatsoever towards democratisation since Mnangagwa came to power,” he tells The Africa Report.

“Zimbabwe has a rotten human rights record, which has worsened during the Mnangagwa era. There is an absence of the rule of law and free, fair and credible elections in the country. There is no judicial independence and separation of powers in Zimbabwe, media freedoms and independence and freedom of speech and expression.”

Makumbe says Mnangagwa’s regime is adamant about not implementing these reforms for fear of being defeated by Citizens Coalition for Change leader Nelson Chamisa in the 2023 general elections.

Let them in?

Tawanda Zinyama, an academic at the University of Zimbabwe, says the country has worked towards being readmitted to the Commonwealth, but has faced significant challenges, most of them emanating from economic distress. According to him, Zimbabwe’s problems can be best fixed within the Commonwealth and not by ostracising the Mnangagwa-led government.

Zimbabwe will likely be swiftly swept under the carpet

“The current policy of the multinational organisation has not borne positive fruits. Perhaps a change of course to suit the changed orientation in the Zimbabwean government could be complementary and thereby produce positive change,” he tells The Africa Report.

Other Commonwealth issues

Chan says this year’s Commonwealth summit in Rwanda will be fractious, and not just because of the Zimbabwe issue.

“The secretary-general is under direct challenge, the proposed admission of Gabon and Togo is controversial, and the relationship between the United Kingdom and Rwanda on the offshoring of refugees will be under the spotlight. Zimbabwe will likely be swiftly swept under the carpet,” he says.

Why is it important for Zimbabwe to be readmitted?

Zimbabweans have lost opportunities, including scholarships, visa-free entry into other Commonwealth countries, trade opportunities and participation in Commonwealth Games since 2003, when Mugabe pulled out from the bloc.

The Commonwealth has influence with many actors, adverse relations with the Commonwealth can mean that they can make life difficult for you. Amicable relations mean life can be easier for you,” says Zinyama.

Mataranyika says Mnangagwa thinks that ending Zimbabwe’s isolation from the West through steps, such as rejoining the Commonwealth, could help secure more foreign direct investment and help boost the economy.

“However, with waning international faith in a reformed democracy and the rule of law in Zimbabwe, Commonwealth membership – should that be possible – may not yield the results that might have been anticipated at the onset of this administration’s rule,” he says.

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