Zimbabwe has applied to rejoin the Commonwealth, fifteen years after former president Robert Mugabe withdrew the country from the organisation in acrimonious circumstances.
The Commonwealth – a grouping of fifty-three states that mostly comprise former territories of the British Empire – received the proposal in a letter from President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has attempted to rebuild strained relations and improve trade ties with the international community since replacing his predecessor in 2017’s military coup.
In a sign of warming relations with the bloc, the Commonwealth said in a statement that Secretary-General Patricia Scotland was ‘delighted’ to receive the approach.
“I whole-heartedly echo the sentiments of Heads of Government who have said twice, in 2009 and subsequently in 2011, that they very much look forward to Zimbabwe’s return when the conditions are right. Zimbabwe’s eventual return to the Commonwealth, following a successful membership application, would be a momentous occasion, given our shared rich history,” she said.
Nevertheless, Zimbabwe’s re-admittance to the organisation will be conditional on the conduct of July’s presidential elections, the first held under a new President since independence in 1980. While President Mnangagwa has insisted that the election will proceed in a free and fair manner, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has warned of the potential for violence and coercion and expressed concern that a polling date has yet to be set. The Commonwealth confirmed that Zimbabwe “must demonstrate that it complies with the fundamental values set out in the Commonwealth Charter, including democracy and rule of law plus protection of human rights such as freedom of expression,” if its membership bid is to succeed.
In a bid to reassure the organisation, Mnangagwa has offered to allow a Commonwealth observer team to attend the elections. The organisation said that this mission will feed its findings into the Secretary-General’s informal assessment of Zimbabwe’s bid. A final decision on Zimbabwe’s re-entry would follow consultations with other Commonwealth countries.
“I urge the government, opposition parties, the election management body, civil society, and all stakeholders, to play their part in ensuring a credible, peaceful and inclusive process that restores citizens’ confidence, trust and hope in the development and democratic trajectory of their country,” stated Secretary-General Scotland.
If successful, Zimbabwe’s bid would represent a remarkable turnaround in relations with Great Britain, the former colonial power and a major player in the modern Commonwealth. Relations with Britain hit a nadir in the early 2000s following Robert Mugabe’s controversial land reform programme, in which thousands of white farmers were forcibly displaced from their farms. During his thirty-seven year term in office, Mugabe frequently railed against Britain, accusing multiple governments of supporting the opposition and undermining his rule.
Since his replacement by Mnangagwa, Britain has frequently touted the idea of Zimbabwe rejoining the Commonwealth as it looks to secure post-Brexit trading opportunities. In a sign that Britain views Zimbabwe’s re-admittance favourably, the UK in South Africa, a UK Government affiliated Twitter account, re-tweeted the news of Zimbabwe’s bid.