Blair fails to reach Commonwealth agreement on Zimbabwe exclusion

Tony Blair failed yesterday to get the swift agreement he wanted from other leaders that Zimbabwe would remain suspended from the Commonwealth. The Prime Minister had hoped the issue, which could split the Commonwealth along race lines, would be settled at the opening session of a summit in Nigeria yesterday.

The Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, who was hosting the meeting in Abuja yesterday had also hoped to reach agreement on the divisive issue of Zimbabwe early in the three-day conference.

Instead, a tense, full meeting of Commonwealth leaders yesterday decided to ask a committee of six countries to make a proposal to the heads of government tomorrow. The meeting was reported to be deadlocked and heated.

After the meeting, Mr Blair and Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa entered a Commonwealth reception but left immediately after talking only to their officials. John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, who has already fallen out with Mr Mbeki over Zimbabwe, did not attend.

The composition of the six reflect the geographical distribution of the Commonwealth but also the spectrum of views on Zimbabwe. South Africa and Mozambique, African countries want to readmit Zimbabwe. Australia and Canada, so-called old Commonwealth countries, are against. The chair, Jamaica, and India are neutral. For Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, the pain of being kicked out must be more than amply compensated for by the pleasure of watching the agony of the Commonwealth trying to agree what to do about him.

Usually, breaches of Commonwealth standards on democracy are dealt with the Commonwealth ministerial action group made up of foreign ministers but so deep is the division over Zimbabwe that the presidents and prime ministers have decided to handle it themselves.

On the one side stand South Africa, Zambia, Namibia, Mozambique and Malawi, calling for the readmission of Zimbabwe to Commonwealth meetings. On the other side, Australia, Britain, Canada and a host of other countries want its suspension maintained.

The division is not as black and white as it appears or Mr Mugabe has tried to paint it. Several African countries, including Ghana, Sierra Leone and Botswana, also want Zimbabwe kept out but do not like to raise their voices. They fear accusations of being called "imperialist lackeys" by Mr Mugabe and breaking the cosy African solidarity among African leaders.

The committee of six is unlikely to agree on readmission or continued suspension but it can chose several options to deal with Zimbabwe.

It could recommend they monitor Zimbabwe, or they could suggest setting up of an Eminent Persons Group such as the one that visited South Africa in 1985.

They are also wary of Britain which has played its hand badly. Under pressure from the right, Tony Blair's Government allowed the Zimbabwe issue to be defined as persecuted white farmers and their land rather than bad government and human rights abuses against the black opposition.

Again, it appeared Britain was more interested in whites and their land than in the rest of Zimbabwe's population.

Africans remember that in 1966 when Ian Smith declared independence, Britain failed to impose effective sanctions. "We don't believe human rights are the issue for the British," one of President Obasanjo's advisers said this week. "It is just a cover for their real interest which is protecting white interests in Zimbabwe."

Mr Mbeki believes the solution must come through internal negotiation which must be promoted by outsiders. Sanctions, he says, do not help this. He has claimed that talks are achieving results.

The trouble is that no meaningful talks are happening, and Mr Mugabe has given his South African counterpart nothing to back his claim of progress.

When President Obasanjo went to Harare to see for himself a fortnight ago he asked Mr Mugabe at least to shake hands with the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, in public. Mr Mugabe is reported to have answered that he would never shake the hand of "that tea boy".

The battle of Zimbabwe is being fought on other fronts too. Australia and Britain raised the possibility of Pakistan's suspension being lifted because it is role in the "war on terrorism". African countries - and India naturally - were incensed. If Mr Mugabe, at least elected, was to be kept out, why should Pakistan, a military dictatorship, be readmitted they said.

But Mr Mbeki and his allies failed in their attempt to depose Don McKinnon as secretary general of the Commonwealth. They backed - some say organised - a challenge from a former Sri Lankan foreign minister, Llakshman Kadirgamar. But Mr McKinnon won a ballot yesterday though he will have been weakened by the challenge.