Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

COMMONWEALTH: Summit Focuses on Democracy, Development – and Zimbabwe

Ferial Haffajee and Toye Olori

ABUJA, Dec 5 2003 (IPS) - The bi-annual Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting got underway in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, Friday with traditional dances and a parade of flags from the group’s 54 member states.

The head of the Commonwealth, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth the second, declared the summit open, saying that although the organisation had evolved over the years, it had also maintained its support of equality and inclusiveness.

“We have been able to retain our fundamental principles and values of democracy, rule of law and gender equality for human development. I have always been struck by the Commonwealth example of multilateralism which has allowed members, no matter what their level of development, to have their voices heard,” she told government leaders.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) is being held under the theme: “Development and Democracy: Partnership for Peace and Progress”.

Commenting on this, Queen Elizabeth said: “Democracy gives people a chance to be heard on how their government should be run. Underdevelopment is the greatest threat to democracy.”

In the same vein, Commonwealth Secretary-General Don Mckinnon noted that trade was one of the main instruments that could be used to fight poverty, which is ravaging several of the group’s member states. He called for enhanced trade relations within the Commonwealth, with richer countries getting “more and more generous”.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is taking over the chairmanship of the organisation, challenged members to develop fresh strategies for resolving the problems that face their citizens – such as HIV/AIDS, corruption and terrorism.

“The Commonwealth must join the rest of the world in the fight against the ills of underdevelopment,” Obasanjo noted. “The club must make the desired impact on its numerous peoples and work for the attainment of the millennium development goals.”

These goals include commitments by the international community to eradicate extreme hunger, and achieve universal primary education by 2015.

The gracious words of the opening ceremony belied the tensions that have marked the run-up to this gathering.

The political crisis in Zimbabwe is again proving a divisive issue for the Commonwealth, with South African President Thabo Mbeki having failed in his bid to get Zimbabwean head of state Robert Mugabe invited to the CHOGM.

Zimbabwe was suspended from the group of former British colonies after holding a flawed presidential poll last year. A delegation of Commonwealth observers condemned the election, saying it had been marred by vote rigging and intimidation.

Earlier this year, McKinnon rebuffed efforts by South Africa to lift Zimbabwe’s suspension – citing a “broad view” that it should stay in place until the CHOGM. McKinnon also rallied opposition to having Mugabe invited to Nigeria.

Sources in Abuja now say that South Africa appears to have thrown its support behind a Sri Lankan candidate to run against McKinnon’s reappointment. This is being seen as the country giving him his come-uppance for maintaining a hard-line stance on Zimbabwe.

Mbeki favours a strategic position that draws Mugabe back into the international fold, and then allows him to exit graciously as an elder statesman.

But, a Commonwealth official noted, “Frankly, we sometimes do find difficulty with South Africa’s position.”

“Now it’s backing the Sri Lankan candidate (Lakshman Kadirgaman). Why? Is it pique at the Zimbabwe issue? If so, why? What results has its position (of quiet diplomacy) yielded?”

A spokesman for South African Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlaminu-Zuma, Ronnie Mamoepa, said she was still in consultation with the President and the cabinet about which candidate for the post of secretary-general the country would support.

The fielding of a Sri Lankan candidate is a curve ball for McKinnon who did not expect to face a leadership race. In line with Commonwealth rules, he can – and intended to – stay two terms. Now he will have to spend the time at CHOGM lobbying for his job.

The emerging view as talks got underway was that there had been no progress in Zimbabwe to justify the lifting of its suspension. McKinnon said efforts by his organisation to secure reforms in Zimbabwe had yielded a “total lack of success…We have not met for 18 months and Commonwealth officers have been denied visas”.

He added: “I have talked to every Commonwealth leader and there is more than one view on how to proceed on Zimbabwe. But the discussion is by no means an Africa versus the rest of the world one.”

Britain and Australia’s role in the United States-led war in Iraq also proved controversial, notably at the Commonwealth People’s Forum – a civil society summit held this week.

If Zimbabwe was to be chided for violating principles, then why not Britain and Australia which were in violation of the Commonwealth’s stated support for multilateralism, asked activists this week.

Pakistan is also suspended from the organisation. The measure was introduced in 1999, after a military coup that overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

However, the fact that the 2003 CHOGM is being held in Nigeria may give delegates and observers some hope about prospects for good governance amongst rogue members.

The outgoing Chairman of the Commonwealth – Australian Prime Minister John Howard – noted that the Abuja meeting, coming barely four years after Nigeria’s re-entry into the group, was of great symbolism.

Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth while the late General Sani Abacha was in power, from 1993 until 1998.

The 1995 suspension followed Abacha’s decision to execute nine members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), including renowned activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

MOSOP had been fighting for greater recognition of human and environmental rights in Nigeria’s south-eastern Ogoniland, which has yielded oil worth billions of dollars – little of which has found its way back to local communities.

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