THE INTERVIEW Sifelani Tsiko
ZIMBABWE pulled out of the Commonwealth in 2003 after it was suspended at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Abuja, Nigeria. But now as relations thaw in the wake of Mr Mugabe’s resignation and the subsequent ascension of President Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe has expressed readiness to rejoin the club of 53, mostly former British colonies. Optimism is high and the UK has expressed strong interest for Zimbabwe to rejoin and to see a new Zimbabwe that is committed to political and economic reforms. Sifelani Tsiko (ST), our Senior Writer, speaks to the Commonwealth Secretary-General Baroness Patricia Scotland (PS) over a wide range issues related to the diplomatic engagements between Zimbabwe and the Club.
ST: Zimbabwe joined the Commonwealth when it attained independence in April 1980 and withdrew from the organisation in 2003. Government has since applied to rejoin the Commonwealth. A letter from President Emmerson Mnangagwa was submitted to you in May this year. What is your comment on the latest moves by Zimbabwe to rejoin the Club?
PS: As a family of nations, the Commonwealth was saddened to see Zimbabwe depart the association in 2003. Heads of Government at their meetings in 2009 and 2011 expressed their wish to see Zimbabwe return to the Commonwealth, when the conditions were conducive to do so. I was therefore pleased to receive President Mnangagwa’s letter outlining Zimbabwe’s intention to rejoin the Commonwealth.
ST: Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth have a shared history dating back to the colonial times. What are some of the major issues you have outlined for Zimbabwe’s re-admission?
PS: An eventual return to the Commonwealth, following a successful membership application, would be a momentous occasion, given our shared history. There are core criteria for membership, as agreed by Commonwealth leaders in 2007. To rejoin, Zimbabwe must demonstrate that it complies with the fundamental values as set out in the Commonwealth Charter, notably a commitment to democracy and democratic processes, including free and fair elections and representative legislatures; the rule of law and independence of the judiciary; good governance, including a well-trained public service and transparent public accounts; and protection of human rights, freedom of expression, and equality of opportunity.
ST: Under President Mnangagwa’s administration, efforts have been made to open up political space and democratise key political institutions. What are your impressions about the performance of the new administration? Do you think his Government is on the right path?
PS: I would encourage the opening up of political space, the consolidation of democratic institutions and processes, and all efforts to advance inclusive sustainable developments. These are the Commonwealth’s values. My informal assessment is in progress, as part of the first step of the membership process, and is yet to be completed.
ST: One of the major concerns of the Commonwealth revolves around fundamental values set out in the Commonwealth Charter, which cover democracy and rule of law plus protection of human rights such as freedom of expression. Are you impressed by President Mnangagwa’s efforts to fulfil these values?
PS: I would encourage any efforts made towards fulfilling these values. My assessment of these and other fundamental criteria is in progress, as part of the first step of the membership process, and is yet to be completed.
ST: Zimbabwe has invited a Commonwealth team to observe the forthcoming elections which are set for July 30 this year. What does this mean to the Commonwealth and does it impact on the relations between Zimbabwe and the Club?
PS: I am due to receive imminently the report of a membership assessment mission, which I recently sent to Zimbabwe. Subject to their findings, I will make a decision on the constitution of an election observer mission. As Zimbabwe is a non-member state, any election observation will be undertaken in the context of the first step of Zimbabwe’s membership application process, which is an informal assessment of Zimbabwe’s commitment to democracy and democratic processes.
ST: The Commonwealth Election Mission is already in Zimbabwe to observe the pre-election period. What is your team saying about the pre-election period? Are you happy with the preparations for the elections?
PS: I am due to receive a report of the membership assessment mission imminently, and will reflect on its findings on the pre-election environment.
ST: Has your election mission received any complaints from opposition political parties and the civil society? If so, what are some of the concerns?
PS: I am due to receive imminently the report of the membership assessment mission, and will reflect on its findings on the pre-election environment. I take the opportunity to encourage all political parties to continue to engage in constructive dialogue among themselves and with the electoral management body to resolve any differences and to contribute to a peaceful and credible election that Zimbabweans will be proud of, and that Zimbabweans deserve.
ST: Are you optimistic that Zimbabwe will rejoin the Commonwealth soon? What is your observation about the re-engagement process?
PS: The four-step membership application process is not time-bound: it is context specific. We are just at the first step of the process. The final decision on Zimbabwe’s re-entry will lie with all 53 Heads of Government. I wish Zimbabwe the very best in this process. We share a rich history, and I hope our future will be equally richly entwined following a successful membership application.
ST: The Queen is widely seen as a symbol of unity of the Commonwealth and has done a lot to demonstrate her commitment to the Club. How has she received the news that Zimbabwe wants to rejoin the Commonwealth? Is the Queen excited about Zimbabwe and its people over prospects of the country rejoining the Commonwealth?
PS: As Head of the Commonwealth, the Queen would have been kept updated on developments. Of course, Her Majesty visited Zimbabwe in 1991 when she attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. I am sure she, too, like our Heads of Government, would be wishing Zimbabwe well throughout this process.
ST: If Zimbabwe is accepted back into the Commonwealth, how do you intend to collaborate with the country on the social, economic and political fronts?
PS: If Zimbabwe successfully concludes the membership application process, and is welcomed back as a member, it will then be able to benefit from the full range of peer-to-peer exchanges and technical support programmes which the Commonwealth has to offer. The benefits of Commonwealth membership: Commonwealth member countries benefit from being part of a mutually supportive community of independent and sovereign states, aided by more than 80 Commonwealth organisations. The Commonwealth Secretariat, established in 1965, supports Commonwealth member countries to achieve development, democracy and peace.
We are a voice for small and vulnerable states and a champion for young people. We help to strengthen governance, build inclusive institutions and promote justice and human rights. Our work helps to grow economies and boost trade, empower young people, and address threats such as climate change, debt and inequality.
We provide training and technical assistance and support decision-makers to draw up
legislation and deliver policies. We deploy experts and observers who offer impartial advice and solutions to national problems. We also provide systems, software and research for managing resources.
At Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings, we bring together government leaders whose decisions will have an enduring impact on all citizens. By uniting our member countries in this way, we help to amplify their voices and achieve collective action on global challenges.
ST: Could you explain the most important steps involved in the re-admission process? How long does this take?
PS: The four-step membership application process is not time-bound. If a country is deemed eligible, the following process applies: One, an informal assessment is undertaken by the Secretary-General following an expression of interest by an aspirant country; two, consultation by the Secretary-General with member states; three, extending an invitation to the interested country to make a formal application; and, four, the interested country then lodges a formal application, which should present evidence of the functioning of democratic processes and popular support in that country for joining the Commonwealth.