Commonwealth faces key decision on Zimbabwe as China boosts presence

This week, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa hailed “excellent” relations with China as he delivered a state of the nation address inside a $200m (£165m) parliament building.

The “gift” from the Asian economic giant replaces a colonial-era Victorian style building in central Harare with a concrete and glass symbol of China’s growing influence on the former British colony, located in Mt Hampden, in what is set to become a new “smart” capital 11 miles to the west.

Mr Mnangagwa described the “majestic” chamber as being “testimony of the strategic and comprehensive partnership and excellent fraternal relations” between Zimbabwe and China. Links between the two nations date back to the 60s when Beijing helped train and supply guerrilla fighters in the fight against white minority rule.

Since 2003, Zimbabwe has looked to China and Russia for assistance and alliance after falling out with Western countries following the regime of Robert Mugabe, who lost power in 2017 and died in 2019.

Yet while China has displayed huge financial influence with big-budget infrastructure projects in energy, mining and agriculture, Mr Mnangagwa has also looked to thaw relations with Western countries by seeking to rejoin the Commonwealth and rekindle historic ties with Britain.

The entrance to the new Parliament building where Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa delivered his State of the Nation Address in Mt Hampden, about 18 kilometres west of the capital Harare, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. Mnangagwa hailed "excellent" relations with China as he, for the first time, delivered a State of the Nation Address at a new multi-million dollar Parliament building funded as a donation by the Asian giant.(AP Photo)
The entrance to the new parliament building in Mt Hampden – a ‘gift’ from China – where Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa delivered his state of the nation address (Photo: AP)

Last week, the Commonwealth assistant secretary general, Professor Luis Franceschi, said Zimbabwe was making positive steps to rejoin, after evaluating its worthiness to be readmitted into the 56-nation group.

“Zimbabwe has made impressive progress in its journey to rejoin the Commonwealth family. This is encouraging and we hope that further progress will be made,” said Professor Franschesci after a six-day visit to thet southern African country.

He had led a four member Commonwealth team to a meeting with Mr Mnangagwa, the opposition and the civic society representatives.

Mr Mnangagwa – who took power from Mr Mugabe through a military coup in 2017 – applied to the Commonwealth the following year for for readmission. Amid an economic crisis, with inflation of 268 per cent, unemployment at more than 80 per cent, and lack of investment, Mr Mnangagwa has been foreced to look for investors and has made “re-engagement” with the West one of his key objectives in this search.

For locals, getting back into the international group would have clear benefits. “I want Zimbabwe to gain the advantages of being in the Commonwealth. I think rejoining will help our economy in the long run,” said Tatenda Moyo, a 27-year-old unemployed engineering graduate.

“If Zimbabwe is admitted this can make it easier for us to look for jobs and scholarships in other Commonwealth countries abroad.” Ms Moyo added that visa restrictions to some countries who are in the grouping will ease once the country is back inside.

However, Frank Mureriwa, 47, said he hoped the head of the Commonwealth, King Charles III, will not be hoodwinked to rush processes to accept the country back..

“The same problems that led to Zimbabwe’s suspension are still with us. The election results are still being disputed. If Zimbabwe is sincere it must invite the Commonwealth and the United Nations to observe 2023 elections,” he said. “I hope King Charles III and the Commonwealth are monitoring the Zimbabwe situation closely and will not be hoodwinked by the Zimbabwe government.”

Even so, Mr Mureriwa agreed that if the nation was readmitted back it would lead to benefits in terms of economic cooperation – and its sportspeople would also be able to participate in the Commonwealth Games.

Sekai Mangwe, 55, a second-hand clothing hawker selling her wares in Highfields suburb in Harare, said: “We were taught to believe that the Commonwealth is a useless organisation by the regime of Robert Mugabe. But now with the country is applying to rejoin, we hope the country benefits from being in the grouping.

“I do not really know much about King Charles III but what I know is Zimbabwe desperately needs help from other countries. People are suffering. Our children are jobless.”

More on Zimbabwe

Charles – then the Prince of Wales – attended Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations on April 18, 1980, after the war of liberation, taking away the Union Flag before the new national flag was hoisted.

The main opposition party, Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) led by Nelson Chamisa, said the country must implement key reforms to be readmitted into the Commonwealth.

“Zimbabwe faces a crisis of governance and legitimacy borne out of disputed elections,” it added. “Bad politics is standing in the way of Zimbabwe’s readmission to the Commonwealth.”

The CCC has accused Mr Mnangagwa’s government of rights violations, corruption, electoral fraud and economic mismanagement. However, justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi has denied claims that the government abducts its critics.

“Zimbabwe has absolutely no reason to abduct its own citizens,” Mr Ziyambi told the Commonwealth delegation in Harare,adding that the country wished to be “a friend to all and an enemy to none”.

The Commonwealth has said the application to join it “is not a time-bound process”.

Gabon and Togo are the latest countries to be admitted into the grouping, both of them joining this year.

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