by Dr Eva Namusoke, Postdoctoral Research Officer, Institute of Commonwealth Studies
The 7th December marks 12 years since Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth. In March 2002 the Commonwealth decided to suspend Zimbabwe for 12 months as a result of, ‘the presidential election, which was marred by a high level of politically motivated violence and during which the conditions did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors.’ A year later, at the December 2003 Abuja Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), the Commonwealth decided to maintain Zimbabwe’s suspension indefinitely. In reaction, President Robert Mugabe decided to pull Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth Oral History Project includes interviews with a number of key players in the run up to Zimbabwe’s suspension and eventual exit. One particular area of focus is the troika set up in 2002 to try address the situation. The troika, made up of the previous, current and next Commonwealth Chair-in-Office consisted of President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard and President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo. John Howard was interviewed for the COHP and discussed his personal frustrations with what he called ‘a total failure’ for the Commonwealth. Jon Sheppard, whose time as Director of the Political Affairs Division at the Commonwealth Secretariat ended in 2002 reflected on the events in this period, while his successor Matthew Neuhaus, described in detail the failure of the troika and the different personalities involved. Both men went on to work as the Australian Ambassador to Zimbabwe. The then Commonwealth Secretary General, Sir Don McKinnon offered insights into the tensions and cooperation between the ‘old Commonwealth’ countries – specifically Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand – and African nations.
Former Prime Minister of Jamaica, P.J. Patterson was also involved in the troika. Along with Obasanjo and Mbeki, he was one of the leaders who spoke to Mugabe on the phone after the Commonwealth had decided to suspend Zimbabwe indefinitely in 2003. In his interview, Patterson remembered the moment it was clear the situation with Mugabe had irrevocably deteriorated:
‘Oh, we got along extremely well. He [Mugabe] would refer to me always as “my brother, my brother”. When I knew that what we had worked out in Abuja was going to end up as it did, I remember very well the conversations that were held between President Obasanjo, President Thabo Mbeki and myself with him. We spoke from Abuja by telephone to him in Harare. I knew we were in real trouble after the others had spoken to him and I was to have my turn in speaking to him. Instead of his saying “my brother”, he said, “Mr Patterson”.’
According to media sources in Zimbabwe, the British ambassador recently called for Zimbabwe to allow Commonwealth observers back into the country to monitor the 2018 elections, part of a bid to reintroduce the country into the wider international community. Her words were met with a scathing article in the pro-government newspaper, The Herald. While Zimbabwe has shown no real signs of returning to the Commonwealth anytime soon, at least one COHP interviewee is optimistic about their chances: British politician and former member of the Commonwealth Development Corporation, Mark Robinson said, ‘it will be welcomed back into the Commonwealth if the conditions are right and if it decides to apply.’