HARARE – The Commonwealth could consider restoring Zimbabwe’s membership after the resignation of former president Robert Mugabe on Tuesday if the country holds free and fair elections and upholds human rights and democracy.
The Commonwealth — whose nations represent nearly one-third of the world’s seven billion people — banned Mugabe from its decision-making council in 2002, after he was accused of using massive force and fraud to win re-election at home.
When the Commonwealth sought to extend Zimbabwe’s suspension at its summit in Nigeria in 2003, Mugabe swiftly quit the 53-nation club.
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday that Mugabe’s resignation was the first step for Zimbabwe to rejoin the Commonwealth.
There is hope for Zimbabwe’s return on condition that it engages in political reconciliation and stick to Commonwealth principles including respect for human rights.
“My honourable friend sets out what I think would be a fine and noble aspiration, both for the Commonwealth and for Zimbabwe. But of course, I must caution him that several steps need to be gone through before that can happen,” Johnson said.
“There must be free and fair elections next year, it then falls to Zimbabwe to apply to the Commonwealth secretariat and then to make clear to the Commonwealth and to the world that Zimbabwe fulfils the criteria on human rights, on rule of law, on democracy, that are necessary for Commonwealth membership,” he said.
Membership in the Commonwealth confers political prestige on an international stage for poor nations and some modest trade and aid benefits.
Members see exclusion from the “gentlemen’s club,” which highly values cordial diplomacy, as inflicting a huge opportunity cost.
Supporters of the Commonwealth point out that there are some beneficial cultural links for the former colonies.
Britain’s universities retain strong links with Commonwealth countries, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Britain’s foreign ministry, runs internship programmes, such as the Chevening Scholarship, that are biased towards Commonwealth nationals.
Moreover, though some criticise the Commonwealth for being little more than a talking shop, it is a talking shop that poor countries seem to like.
For former colonies, it is the most important global organisation that the United States does not dominate. And though Britain’s Queen Elizabeth is the head of the Commonwealth, Britain has no special status.
It is not clear if Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa — who takes oath of office as President today — will consider Zimbabwe’s readmission.
But upon arrival from exile in South Africa on Wednesday, he pledged to mend relations with the international community.
“We need the cooperation of our friends outside the continent,” the president-designate said.
“That we shall achieve. I am already receiving messages of cooperation and support for us to grow our economy…Today, we are witnessing the beginning of a new unfolding democracy.”