Zimbabwe, the 2023 elections and Commonwealth membership

President Mnangagwa and Prince William
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A Commonwealth Observer Group report will be an important document in any Commonwealth assessment of the current state of democratic freedoms and human rights in Zimbabwe.

Nearly nine months since Zimbabwe’s fiercely disputed Presidential, parliamentary and local elections in August 2023, the report of the Commonwealth Observer Group (COG) to the elections has yet to be published. In February/March 2024, the report was apparently finalised and ready for publication. Since then, it was understood to be lodged in the office of the Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland. At the same time, a Zimbabwe government delegation, led by the Attorney-General Virginia Mabhiza, was recently in Marlborough House meeting the Secretary-General and senior Commonwealth officials.

Whatever is afoot, the COG report will be an important document in any Commonwealth assessment of the current state of democratic freedoms and human rights in Zimbabwe. Since the army coup that toppled Robert Mugabe in 2017 and the coming to power of his erstwhile lieutenant, Emmerson Mnangagwa, there has been speculation that Zimbabwe might return to Commonwealth membership. In May 2018, President Mnangagwa formally submitted Zimbabwe’s application for readmission in a letter to Secretary-General Scotland and invited the Commonwealth to send an observer mission to the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. Scotland expressed delight at receiving the letter and stated that she very much looked forward to Zimbabwe’s return “when the conditions are right.”

However, the August elections that year were far from reassuring. Amid allegations of voter intimidation, human rights abuse and post-election violence, Commonwealth observers were unable to provide a positive report. Chaired by Ghana’s former president, John Dramani Mahama, the COG, while noting some encouraging developments, was critical of shortcomings which had ‘unlevelled’ the playing field. The observers concluded that they were unable to endorse all aspects of the election process as “credible, inclusive and peaceful.” With many others reaching a similar conclusion, the words of David Coltart, former Cabinet Minister and currently MDC Mayor of Bulawayo, seemed apt: “Whilst a tyrant had been removed, we had yet to remove a tyranny.”

In the wake of the 2018 elections, the UK, the USA and the European Union all renewed sanctions on Zimbabwe as an expression of the serious concern that they shared about human rights violations and the deteriorating democratic environment. While these sanctions are generally targeted against specific individuals (deemed responsible for some of the worst human rights violations), the Zimbabwean government has long blamed external sanctions on falling living standards, periods of hyperinflation and poor economic performance.

Nonetheless, these negative developments do not seem to have impeded Zimbabwe’s application for readmission to the Commonwealth. The Secretary-General visited Zimbabwe in June 2018, prior to the disputed elections, and again in 2019 as part of her informal assessment. Following that second low-key visit, Zimbabwe’s spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Constance Chemwayi, stated that the application was now at the ‘consultation stage’ involving all member countries. In 2022, Zim Trade, the Zimbabwe national trade and investment arm, joined the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC) and participated in the Commonwealth Business Forum held in Kigali, immediately prior to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) hosted in the capital by Rwanda on 24-25 June. Lord Swire, Deputy Chair of CWEIC and a former UK Minister, explained that this was “part and parcel of the eventual rehabilitation of Zimbabwe into the international community.” At the same time, he added that there were clearly “some underlying problems that sit uncomfortably with almost everything the Commonwealth purports to stand for.”

No public mention was made of the progress of Zimbabwe’s application at the Commonwealth Rwanda summit but in November 2022 it was announced that a Commonwealth Secretariat delegation, led by the Assistant Secretary-General, Professor Luis Franceschi, would be visiting Harare for four days of meetings with both government and opposition as part of the informal assessment process. Afterwards, Professor Franceschi commented that Zimbabwe had made “significant progress in its journey to rejoin the Commonwealth family.” He reported that all he had spoken to had supported readmission and declared that “we will work together towards that shared goal to ensure this process reaches its proper conclusion.”

All now hung on the 2023 Zimbabwe elections and, in terms of Zimbabwe’s Commonwealth membership, the full assessment of the Commonwealth Observer Group invited to be present at those parliamentary, presidential and local elections. As polling day drew closer, Professor Stephen Chan, the Professor of World Politics in the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London University, was turned away on arrival in Zimbabwe and deported to Zambia. He had come, he protested, in an individual capacity to witness the culmination of Zimbabwe’s political process, as he had done many times in the past (including as a Commonwealth Observer at Zimbabwe’s independence elections in 1980). On the contrary, riposted the Zimbabwean “Herald”, he was on a mission to train opposition insurgents, destabilise the country and help ‘trigger mayhem’ if the results of the poll were not to his liking.

However, as it turned out, Chan’s critical observations were in line with the concerns raised by international and local observers. While polling day was largely peaceful and free of violence, the European Union mission, US observers and, most telling of all, the large observer mission from the South African Development Community (SADC) – a regional organisation including Zimbabwe in its membership – were among those that concluded that the electoral process had in key respects fallen short of a range of local, regional and international standards. While the Commonwealth mission also referred to many of these issues – from barriers to candidate registration and political campaigning, to the integrity of voters rolls and the timely provision of electoral materials to polling stations in opposition areas – it withheld judgment on the integrity of the elections until its final report.

It is that report, already long overdue, which is now awaited. Thirty years ago, in April 1994, the Commonwealth mustered its largest ever COG as South Africa’s ‘freedom elections’ left apartheid behind and brought to power Nelson Mandela as the nation’s new president. Michael Manley, the former Prime Minister of Jamaica, headed the COG on that occasion. Appointed by the Commonwealth Secretary-General, he – like the rest of the group – owed the SG nothing more ( or less) than his integrity and judgement. The collective wisdom of the COG report would be immune from external pressure – whether of individuals or governments.

May that also be the case with the COG report on Zimbabwe’s harmonised election of August, 2023.

Stuart Mole is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and a member of the Round Table editorial board.

Source: Zimbabwe, the 2023 elections and Commonwealth membership