Asked once again what the Commonwealth will be doing to get rid of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, the organisation’s Secretary General, Don McKinnon, points out with wry humour, and a touch of frustration, that after 40 years of trying, the United States has still not been able to get Cuban leader Fidel Castro out of office.
He also points out that you could get an idea of the cost and consequence of trying to remove a leader with an outside force by looking at Iraq.
“You don’t just get rid of leaders, and it’s not our task to get rid of leaders because ultimately they can only be changed by their people. We’re not in the business of regime change,” McKinnon explains.
Not that the Commonwealth has not been trying to get the Zimbabwean government to change its ways. Zimbabwe has been suspended from the Commonwealth broadly because the organisation found that its recent elections have not been “free and fair” and that there has been a lapse of good governance in the country.
In a nutshell, the Commonwealth wants the Zimbabwe government to restore good governance, free the political process in the country and begin a process of national reconciliation before its suspension from the organisation will be lifted.
But McKinnon concedes that, so far, the Commonwealth has little to show for its pains. “We deserve an ‘A’ for effort, but a ‘D’ for achievement,” he admits.
However, the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth has created the perception of a racial divide over the issue in the organisation. African states, including South Africa, are seen to be reluctantly going along with the continued suspension of Zimbabwe, while the United Kingdom and Australia, among others, want the Commonwealth to keep the country at arms length until it re-establishes a broadly acceptable level of good governance.
McKinnon dismisses the divide as a “perception”, saying he is uniquely qualified to make this call since he speaks to the leaders of the organisation’s 54 states. “There is not a single African leader who isn’t unhappy about Zimbabwe,” he explains. However, he acknowledges that there are differences among Commonwealth leaders about the best way to tackle the issue of Zimbabwe.
South Africa was in favour of lifting the suspension of Zimbabwe in time for it to attend the next Commonwealth summit, scheduled for Abuja, Nigeria, in December this year. Under pressure from other Commonwealth countries, South Africa’s ally and the host of the conference, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, refused to invite Zimbabwe to the gathering.
McKinnon does not believe the seemingly acrimonious differences on the issue have damaged the relationship between South Africa and the Commonwealth. He points out that in international affairs differences over one issue cannot be allowed to contaminate relationships over other matters.
McKinnon says the Commonwealth is in the business of development and democracy and championing the interests of small, poor states — an area he describes as a “niche” for the organisation, increasingly overshadowed by other international organisations.
He points out that the organisation has made a great contribution to the drawing-up of a Constitution for Swaziland, the monarchy that goes to the polls on Saturday. He has a list of other countries where the organisation has been involved in strengthening democratic institutions.
He recognises that many small or developing countries cannot afford all the formal trappings of democracy and that the strengthening of institutions such as independent ombudsmen will take time.
The Commonwealth is also campaigning for the international financial and trade systems to better consider the needs of small states and developing nations.
McKinnon insists the world’s major powers need to realise that if standards of living continue to drop in developing countries and people continue to feel marginalised, the world will continue to be an unstable, insecure place. “If states in Africa, for example, really feel they have a future in the world, that will help make it that much more stable.”