From the February 2004 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 51, No. 2)


Zimbabwe: Mounting Isolation

Sarah Coleman, World Press Review associate editor

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe speaks at the U.N.-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society, Dec. 10, 2003, in Geneva (Photo: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP-Getty Images).
“There are many other clubs we can join,” said President Robert Mugabe on Dec. 6, as he confirmed that Zimbabwe would withdraw from the Commonwealth, a group of nations comprising mostly former British colonies. “If the choice was for us to lose sovereignty, or be a member of the Commonwealth, let the Commonwealth go.”

Mugabe’s bravado belied the fact that he had been lobbying hard for the Commonwealth to revoke its suspension of Zimbabwe, imposed as a result of the country’s flawed 2002 general election. Prior to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, from Dec. 5–8, Mugabe had put pressure on the meeting’s host, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, to let him attend the meeting. When the Commonwealth rebuffed both men’s efforts and voted to uphold Zimbabwe’s suspension, Mugabe was forced to pretend that he no longer valued the membership.

The government-owned press wasted no time putting a positive spin on the pull-out. “Quitting the Commonwealth is the best decision Zimbabwe could have made in pursuit of total political and economic independence,” said Donald Charumbira in The Herald (Dec. 11). Caesar Zvayi, writing in the same paper on Dec. 17, called the decision an “affirmation of the nation’s resolve for total emancipation from all forms of colonial bondage.”

The few independent newspapers left in Zimbabwe told a different story. The Standard (Dec. 15) compared Mugabe’s actions to “the last kicks of a dying horse,” asking, “How else can one explain the crazy decision on the part of the government of Zimbabwe to pull the country out of the Commonwealth?” Reacting to Mugabe’s statement that some African nations “hesitate to express solidarity with us,” the Zimbabwe Independent wrote (Dec. 5), “Of course they do….Which African country wants to be associated with the racist demagoguery and suppression of democratic rights Zimbabwe has earned notoriety for?”

Other editorialists in Africa expressed similar criticisms. “For us, the real issue is all about the suppression of opposition in Zimbabwe,” said an editorial in Ghana’s Independent (Dec. 11). “Mugabe has virtually gone berserk in his attempts to prevent the growth of opposition in Zimbabwe.” Uganda’s The New Vision (Dec. 9) suggested that “Zimbabwe is in free-fall” and wondered, “Why then have the leaders of Southern Africa been so reluctant to condemn the political leadership of Zimbabwe?” (The South African Development Community, consisting of 14 Southern African countries, issued a statement on Dec. 9 disagreeing with the Commonwealth’s decision.)

In Nigeria, there were mixed feelings about the suspension. In Vanguard (Dec. 9), Chuks Iloegbunam complained that the Commonwealth had double standards, since Nigeria’s last elections were just as flawed as Zimbabwe’s. “Did not the European Union, the Carter Center, and all the international human-rights monitoring organizations pronounce [Nigeria’s elections] deeply flawed and riddled with irregularities, intimidation, and rigging?” he asked. In the Daily Trust (Dec. 9), Ujudud Shariff saluted Mugabe “for calling the bluff of the so-called Commonwealth by pulling out of the colonially rooted, imperialist-inspired and driven organization.”

Three days after its suspension from the Commonwealth, Zimbabwe faced expulsion from another organization when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) began procedures to expel it for having arrears of US$273 million.

The decision “could only fuel negative perceptions,” predicted The Financial Gazette (Dec. 11), which urged Mugabe to “knuckle down to the IMF conditions to help reverse the country’s flagging fortunes.”

Other commentators hoped that Zimbabwe’s growing isolation would hasten Mugabe’s political end. As the Zimbabwe Independent put it on Dec. 5, “The world is becoming a less safe place for even the most plucky tyrants.”

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