March 9th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

The Hollingworth Affair

Federal Cabinet decision on cloning

Media putsch overwhelms Governor-General

Will CHOGM bite the bullet, oust Mugabe?

Straws in the Wind: Rumpole arising

Environment: National parks are an unacceptable fire risk

Agriculture: Bar lowered on quarantine once again

Media: Crude but effective

Environmental optimism (letter)

Bias: in the eye of the beholder (letter)

Economics: Privatisation: the promise and the reality

Comment: Trust: a commodity in short supply

Culture: How the media exploits the US$150 billion American youth market

ASIA: WTO entry will put pressure on China-Taiwan ties

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Will CHOGM bite the bullet, oust Mugabe?

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, March 9, 2002

Meetings of the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) are usually little more than occasions for leaders of second-rank countries to strut the world stage, delivering high-sounding rhetoric on issues they have little capacity to influence.

The CHOGM meeting at Coolum, in Queensland, which commences as this issue of News Weekly goes to press, will be given an opportunity to play a major role in one of the world's current major troublespots, Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe, who has run the country with increasing brutality, faces a major challenge in the Presidential poll, due on March 9-10.

Ironically, Mugabe owes his appointment as Zimbabwe's President to the Commonwealth.

Commonwealth sanctions led to the collapse of a white minority government in the country, then known as Rhodesia, in 1979, and free elections in Zimbabwe in 1980.

Mugabe, leader of one of the country's two main black political parties, based on the majority Shona tribe, was elected Prime Minister in 1980, and has been President since 1987.

Since then, one of the most prosperous countries of Africa has been in steady decline.

The country has natural reserves of coal, chromium ore, gold, nickel, copper, iron ore and other metal ores. It also has significant agricultural enterprises, including beef cattle and cropping; but the most productive of these are in the hands of a small number of white farmers.

Mugabe has been trying to drive the white farmers from their lands using so-called "war veterans" from the guerilla war, in the process, destroying an important part of the nation's economy, and making tens of thousands of black Zimbabweans unemployed.

The economy is in ruins. GDP fell by 6 per cent in the year 2000, and inflation rose from 32% in 1998, to 59% in 1999, and 60% in 2000.

The economy is being steadily weakened by government mismanagement and AIDS; Zimbabwe has the highest rate of infection in the world.

Badly needed support from the international community has not been forthcoming, due to corruption and incompetence by Mugabe's government.

Faced with increased internal opposition, Mugabe has become increasingly repressive against black Zimbabweans, particularly the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, headed by Morgan Tsvangirai.

The Movement for Democratic Change nearly defeated Mugabe's party in House of Assembly elections in June 2000, despite widespread claims that Mugabe has rigged it.

Since then, Mugabe has become increasingly dictatorial, prompting criticism from Britain, the European Union and the United States. They had strongly criticised his human rights record, and attempts to manipulate the election outcome.

Shortly before the elections, Mugabe threw out the head of an EU mission which had been sent to the country to monitor the fairness of the election process, prompting the EU to threaten trade sanctions on Zimbabwe.

Pro-Mugabe mobs have disrupted election meetings held by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and on February 25, Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader, was formally charged with treason, a crime which carries the death penalty.

After being summoned to police headquarters to be charged, Tsvangirai said, "I denied the charge completely. I told them this whole thing was contrived to damage me politically and to eliminate me from the presidential race."

He also criticised the government-controlled media, particularly the Zimbabwe Herald and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.

He said: "I have already been convicted by The Herald and the ZBC. I think it is unprofessional for journalists to judge a man before he even goes to court."

At this critical juncture, Zimbabwe is clearly a key issue for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Queensland.

CHOGM is uniquely placed to put pressure on the 78 year old dictator to ensure that the March elections are free and fair.

Economic pressure from the Commonwealth, particularly the UK and neighbouring countries in Africa, have the potential to influence the Zimbabwe Government, as seen in desperate attempts by Mugabe to shore up support among the 14-nation Southern African Development Community.

At the very least, a substantial number of election observers should be on the ground to ensure that ballot rigging and intimidation do not determine the outcome of the election.

If Mugabe will not permit them into the country, it will be a sure sign that the election outcome is being manipulated by an increasingly unpopular despot, and Zimbabwe should be suspended from the Commonwealth.

If, however, CHOGM fails to respond to this challenge, it will have shown itself to be morally deficient and politically impotent. The world will be watching.

  • Peter Westmore

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