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POLITICS: Zimbabwe Could Overshadow Commonwealth Agenda

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Oct 18 2003 (IPS) - Don McKinnon hopes that December’s Commonwealth summit in Abuja, Nigeria will not be dominated by Zimbabwe, but it appears that circumstances might override that wish.

“The 54 countries want CHOGM to be about democracy and development and not to be dominated by Zimbabwe,” said the Commonwealth secretary general, this week.

CHOGM is the annual Commonwealth heads of government meeting. The theme of this year’s gathering is ‘development and democracy – partnership for peace and prosperity’.

Two countries will not be invited to Abuja. “No invitation is going out to Zimbabwe and Pakistan,” McKinnon told a news conference in Johannesburg.

Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in March 2003 following presidential elections that critics said were rigged. Pakistan was suspended following a 1999 military coup led by Gen Pervez Musharraf, now the country’s president.

Unlike Pakistan, Zimbabwe still “evokes strong reactions and emotions”, as McKinnon found out during his Oct. 8-15 tour of Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and South Africa to discuss preparations for the Dec. 5-8 meeting.

In the four countries journalists bombarded him with questions about Zimbabwe. In South Africa, almost one-half of McKinnon’s conversations with the media involved that nation.

“I haven’t had any dialogue with (Zimbabwean President Robert) Mugabe for a couple of years. That’s sad,” said McKinnon.

Some Commonwealth leaders have urged the secretary general to engage Mugabe – a tall order according to the straight-talking former New Zealand foreign minister. “I can’t talk to him (Mugabe) if he doesn’t want to talk to me,” McKinnon said.

It is for the people of Zimbabwe themselves to find solutions to their problems and to determine their own destiny, he added. “It is not for those outside its borders to lecture, pontificate, order or direct.”

“But the international community can certainly encourage, assist, facilitate, and when necessary remind Zimbabwe of the values to which it has signed up. That is what the Commonwealth has sought to do and continues to attempt.”

“But this means that we cannot remain silent when independent newspapers are shut down, or when demonstrating trade unionists are beaten up,” McKinnon said, referring to the closure of the country’s only independent newspaper, the ‘Daily News’, last month..

Last year the Commonwealth formed a troika – comprising Australia, Nigeria and South Africa – to mediate with Mugabe’s government.

“Sadly, our overtures have been spurned. President Mugabe’s government has chosen to keep us at arm’s length,” McKinnon said.

But McKinnon’s remarks contrast with those of President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, a troika member. Mbeki told U.S. President George W. Bush in July that the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), were talking.

MDC Secretary-General Welshman Ncube told journalists in Johannesburg this week that the talks were bogged down by succession quarrels in the ruling party.

Rival factions within ZANU-PF are disputing who should succeed 79-year-old Mugabe, ahead of the party’s conference in December.

Apparently fed up with Mugabe’s foot-dragging, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, another troika member, said after the closure of the ‘Daily News’ that Zimbabwe needed a ”sea of change” before it could be readmitted to the Commonwealth.

This week Mugabe showed some flexibility when he approved the easing of a tough media law against journalists. Critics say the move was designed to improve Zimbabwe’s image ahead of the Commonwealth gathering.

Under the amendment, journalists will now face criminal charges if the court establishes that they published a story that is perceived to be offending ”intentionally or recklessly”. The amendment replaces a clause on publishing ”falsehoods”, which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional.

The crisis in Zimbabwe grew between 2000 and 2003 when the government seized land from 4,500 white farmers for distribution among landless blacks. Mugabe said he was correcting colonial injustices that originally allowed white settlers to grab the best lands and dump black people in barren, rocky communal areas, not fit for farming.

Unfortunately, the land reform programme has destroyed the country’s agricultural sector.

Eight million people, more than one-half of Zimbabwe’s population, now need food aid. The nation faces shortages of fuel, sugar and bank notes. Inflation, which is currently running at around 455 percent, is expected to hit 600 percent by the end of the year.

McKinnon said three million Zimbabweans now live in South Africa as refugees, 400,000 in Mozambique and 200,000 in Botswana, from which 2,000 are deported daily.

The Commonwealth, an organisation of independent states that were formerly parts of the British Empire established to encourage trade and friendly relations among its members, is urging Zimbabwe, as well as its less privileged neighbours, to adopt policies that alleviate poverty.

“Figures show one-third of the Commonwealth’s 1.8 billion people live on less than one U.S. dollar a day,” McKinnon said.

About 75 million of the 113 million children out of school live in Commonwealth countries. Last year, British Finance Minister Gordon Brown launched a 15-million-dollar initiative to help those children go to school.

The majority of Commonwealth countries have signed the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, one of which aims to send every child to primary school by 2015. But unless there is a dramatic change, 88 countries, many of them in the Commonwealth, will not meet this goal, warns a recent World Bank report.

Another issue that will feature prominently on the CHOGM agenda is reform of the international trade system. “If people in Europe and the U.S. are concerned about reducing the flow of economic refugees and if they want to see a reduction in the disparity of world income, then they should begin by reducing agricultural subsidies,” McKinnon said.

“The simple truth is that the EU, the U.S. and Japan have not lived up to their commitments. It is high time the rhetoric about the benefits of trade liberalisation starts matching the reality,” he added.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have estimated that liberalisation of trade in agricultural products would increase developing country exports by at least 30 billion dollars a year and possibly by as much as 100 billion dollars.. “This could make a real difference to the people of Africa today,” McKinnon said.

“Sadly, everyone stands to lose from the recent breakdown in trade talks at the WTO (World Trade Organisation) meeting in Cancun (Mexico), but particularly the poor countries. A deal in Cancun could have added 520 billion U.S. dollars to global incomes by 2015, lifting 144 million people out of poverty,” he added.

Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, might also be waiting for a “deal” from the Commonwealth, which would centre on Zimbabwe’s readmission to the organisation in December.

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