Mugabe quits Commonwealth over 'racist' plot against Zimbabwe

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Zimbabwe quit the Commonwealth last night after the 54-member group decided to extend sanctions against it.

President Robert Mugabe made the announcement after telling the leaders of Jamaica, Nigeria and South Africa that Harare did not accept the Commonwealth's position.

Talks on Zimbabwe had dominated a four-day Commonwealth summit in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. After a contentious debate the host, President Olusegun Obasanjo, said Zimbabwe would remain suspended to protect the Commonwealth's core principles. Mr Mugabe was suspended early last year on the grounds that he rigged his re-election and persecuted his opponents. But a powerful group of African members had lobbied hard for the country to be readmitted.

Only two weeks ago Mr Mugabe said he was looking forward to attending the Commonwealth's party in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, at the weekend. Yesterday, in a fit of childish petulance, he seemed to be saying he never wanted to come anyway.

"Zimbabwe has withdrawn its membership from the Commonwealth with immediate effect," said a statement issued by the presidency.

At their summit, the Commonwealth leaders decided to continue the suspension of Zimbabwe, accepting a recommendation from Nigeria's President, Olusegun Obasanjo, that he and the Commonwealth secretary general, Don McKinnon, monitor developments there until the next heads of government meeting in two years' time. In the meantime, Zimbabwe was to be given clear benchmarks for improvement.

In the statement, Mr Mugabe's government demanded that Zimbabwe be fully reinstated. "Anything you agree on Zimbabwe which is short of this position, no matter how sweetly worded, means Zimbabwe is still a subject of the Commonwealth. This is unacceptable," the statement said. "It's quits, and quits it will be."

Mr Mugabe complained of racism and said that the Commonwealth had been hijacked by Britain and the "white" Commonwealth countries. But his attempt to divide the organisation along racial lines failed when only a handful of southern African countries backed South Africa's demand that Zimbabwe be readmitted. Its membership was suspended last year after Commonwealth election monitors found the Zimbabwean presidential election to be unfree and unfair.

The announcement is a particular setback for Tony Blair who had delayed his departure from Abjua to ensure that a satisfactory agreement was in place. Earlier he had urged Commonwealth leaders to disregard Mr Mugabe's threats, saying that there was "no possible justification" for lifting Zimbabwe's suspension.

He predicted that if Zimbabwe did pull out it would only be for a limited period. "In the end they could only speak for the government of Zimbabwe at the moment. I don't think Zimbabwe would ever leave the Commonwealth for any length of time," he said.

Zimbabwe's departure will do nothing to heal the split in the Commonwealth, with countries that have been critical of Mr Mugabe, such as Britain, saying in public that they deeply regret the move, while probably whispering good riddance under their breath, and with the South Africans, who had argued for keeping Zimbabwe in and maintaining dialogue with Mr Mugabe, saying "I told you so".

The Zimbabwean President cares deeply about the Commonwealth because it contains so many of his peers and because it has played such a huge part in Zimbabwe's history. That involvement is now shot through with painfully bitter ironies.

It was the 1979 Commonwealth summit in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, where President Kenneth Kaunda danced with Margaret Thatcher, that created the breakthrough that led to the end of white-ruled Rhodesia, elections, Mr Mugabe's victory and independence. A dozen years later, at the summit in Zimbabwe, the Harare Declaration was drawn up, the first attempt to set in stone the democratic and human rights standards that were expected of Commonwealth members, the standards that Zimbabwe failed last year, which led to its suspension. And it was the close relationship between Mrs Thatcher and Mr Mugabe that brought Mozambique into the Commonwealth, the first member to have not been ruled by Britain.

Commonwealth membership brings almost no material benefits ­ Zimbabwe's recent expulsion from the International Monetary Fund is far more serious. But it is a popular club, with a long list of countries seeking membership. Only a handful of countries have left, most of them, like Zimbabwe, under intense criticism. South Africa left in 1961 after its Apartheid policies were attacked by other members; Pakistan left in 1972 when Britain planned to recognise newly independent Bangladesh; and Fiji departed in 1987 after a race-based coup. All of them later returned after a change of government. It is unlikely that any other country will follow Zimbabwe's example and its readmission, after a change of government, is a near certainty.