Blair says Commonwealth stance will assist 'long overdue' increase in aid to Africa

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair has welcomed the decision by the Commonwealth to suspend Zimbabwe, saying it reinforced the organisation's credibility and was a necessary condition for increased Western aid to Africa.

The Prime Minister said the suspension "sends a very clear message that not just the Commonwealth, but Africa, is in favour of democracy and Africa will not compromise with the issues of democracy".

He said it increased the prospects of securing a deal at the G8 summit in Canada in May that would allow a "long overdue" increase in aid to Africa. Mr Blair, with the Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, is sponsoring a scheme to foster economic development in Africa, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad).

According to some reports, not confirmed yesterday either by Downing Street or by the Foreign Office, Britain had threatened to withdraw support for Nepad if South Africa stood out against suspending Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who had called for Zimbabwe's suspension several weeks before the country's election and condemned the Commonwealth heads of state and government for prevaricating earlier this month, echoed Mr Blair's satisfaction. He publicly congratulated the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, for the Zimbabwe decision before a meeting at the Foreign Office yesterday. Mr Howard had steered his fellow members of the Commonwealth leaders' "troika" – the presidents of South Africa and Nigeria – to agree to Zimbabwe's suspension, despite their initial misgivings.

For Mr Straw, the decision amounted to a personal vindication and considerably strengthens his position, after a shaky start at the Foreign Office. He stressed that the decision had been made by the Commonwealth as a whole and that Mr Mugabe's efforts to treat the issue as a bilateral one between Zimbabwe and Britain as the former colonial power had failed.

Mr Howard said the unambiguous findings of the Commonwealth observers that the election had been flawed had left the troika with no alternative but suspension. He acknowledged that Tuesday's meeting had been "difficult", but said: "It was certainly not an acrimonious meeting, and both of my colleagues were very constructive."

President Thabo Mbeki, of South Africa, who had sat silent and without expression, as Mr Howard made Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth public the previous day, returned home overnight. At a cabinet meeting yesterday, the South African government decided that it would officially recognise Mr Mugabe's election victory. The move was in line with the conclusions of South Africa's own government observers who reported that, while the election was flawed, it was sufficiently fair to be "legitimate" and "credible". The South African cabinet also endorsed Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth and pledged to work with all parties in Zimbabwe towards reconciliation.

Mr Mbeki, and his fellow troika members, Mr Howard and President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, are committed to monitoring events in Zimbabwe and reviewing the Commonwealth suspension in 12 months' time.

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