THE NGO NETWORK ALLIANCE PROJECT - an online community for Zimbabwean activists  
 View archive by sector


Back to Index

Zimbabwe, SADC and CHOGM
SADC Barometer Issue 4, Jan 2004, South African Institute of International Affairs
January 31, 2004
By *Brendan Vickers

In an official letter to Marlborough House, dated 11 December 2003, Zimbabwe formally terminated with effect from 7 December 2003 its membership of the Commonwealth. This confirmed President Mugabe's decision to leave the organisation following the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Nigeria, which indefinitely suspended Harare from the Councils of the organisation.

The protracted political acrimony among Commonwealth members over Zimbabwe's status reached its climax in Nigeria. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries (10 of which belong to the Commonwealth if you exclude Zimbabwe and the Seychelles) were at the forefront in supporting Zimbabwe's re-admission. SADC's position is that Zimbabwe's one-year suspension lapsed on 19 March 2003, and that therefore the country should be brought back into the fold of the Commonwealth. This position was reaffirmed at a meeting of the troika of the SADC Organ for Politics, Defence and Security - namely Lesotho (chair), Mozambique and South Africa, with Zimbabwe invited - in Pretoria in late November 2003.

In Nigeria, the Commonwealth decided to maintain its suspension of Zimbabwe and appointed a six-member panel to advise on the way forward. Following the CHOGM, SADC

(supported by Uganda) issued a statement in which it expressed deep concern at what it called the 'dismissive, intolerant and rigid attitude' shown by some Commonwealth members toward Zimbabwe. SADC has consistently pleaded for greater patience and understanding of Zimbabwe, and cautioned against lecturing and hectoring.

Implications for SADC?

First, it would appear that not all SADC states supported the statement. Botswana, which has in the past openly criticised Mugabe, issued its own statement distancing itself from the sentiments expressed in the SADC one. Botswana has, however, consistently held that Zimbabwe's suspension should be lifted so that the Commonwealth can engage the country constructively.

Second, SADC, if it is to prove its Commonwealth detractors wrong, will have to show that its engagement with Zimbabwe is bearing fruit. One thing is clear: the Zimbabwe issue is hurting SADC states' relations with third parties. Pretoria should step up pressure to encourage constructive dialogue and meaningful reform over the next six months. Some SADC leaders, in attributing the Commonwealth's position to a white plot against Mugabe, have not only missed the point but failed to see that it is the constitutional rights of all Zimbabweans (the real victims) which must be addressed and respected. There are, however, no quick fixes for Zimbabwe.

Third, Zimbabwe's withdrawal from the Commonwealth is regrettable, as both SADC and the Commonwealth broadly share the same norms and values. This should have provided a good starting-point for resolving the political pathology, economic stasis and social fragmentation afflicting Zimbabwe. It is imperative, if SADC is to preserve its credibility, that it acknowledges Zimbabwe's departure from some of those norms. It is equally important to recognise that SADC states have valid grievances over the process by which Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth has been handled. Following the 2002 Coolum CHOGM, the Commonwealth Chairperson's Committee on Zimbabwe (troika) - namely Australia (chair), Nigeria and South Africa - suspended Zimbabwe from the councils of the Commonwealth for one year after Commonwealth observers claimed that the 2002 Zimbabwe Presidential elections had been flawed. The troika also decided that it would meet again in a year's time to consider the evolution of the situation in Zimbabwe. This meeting subsequently took place six months earlier than agreed, at which both South Africa and Nigeria opposed Australia's demand for additional sanctions, as this exceeded the troika's mandate. When Harare's suspension was due to officially expire in March 2003, the Commonwealth, despite opposition from South Africa, Nigeria and other African nations, automatically extended Harare's suspension beyond the agreed one year to the Abuja CHOGM in December 2003.

Fourth, SADC states should not be surprised if foreign investors, who have yet to understand the region's market and politics, do not take well to their position on Zimbabwe.

Finally, the 'official' and 'unofficial' Commonwealths - plural! - are unique in that they blend inter-state as well as people-to-people diplomacy (part of the 'new multilateralism'). Zimbabwe's exit from the 'official' Commonwealth means that is has lost a valuable forum to assist with both its domestic and international recovery. Using its prestige alone, the Commonwealth has in the past successfully encouraged democratic change in nations such as Fiji, South Africa and Nigeria. Individual Commonwealth members will not, however, turn their backs on Zimbabwe. It was widely expected that the incumbent Commonwealth Chair-in-Office, Olusegun Obasanjo, would mastermind a breakthrough on Zimbabwe. He may still be able to play this role outside of the Commonwealth.

*Brendan Vickers works in the Policy Co-ordination and Advisory Services, International Relations and Trade, in the SA Presidency and is a Commonwealth PhD Fellow in the UK. He writes in his personal capacity.

Please credit if you make use of material from this website. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.