It is time for Britain to quit the Commonwealth

'Black Africa would learn we are no longer prepared to be made fools of, either by Mugabe or his fellow tyrants'
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The Independent Online

The only surprise about the outcome of the so-called presidential "election" in Zimbabwe was that Robert Mugabe did not have the final result announced a week before the polls opened. So much has been written about the intimidation, ballot-rigging and all the other chicanery with which this monster has been associated that there seem few words left to describe, adequately, what has happened. That the whole affair was a fix is plain for all to see, including the Commonwealth observer team – unless you happen to be a fellow African despot or the Organisation for African Unity.

But the nightmare in Zimbabwe is about to have far-reaching and embarrassing consequences for the Commonwealth. Britain's call for Zimbabwe's expulsion from the Commonwealth is, once again, bound to place us at odds with black African members. The embarrassment, however, is Africa's, not Britain's. Even more depressing than the fiddling of the figures by Mr Mugabe's henchmen has been the response of other African countries. Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Tanzania and even South Africa have been quick to embrace Mr Mugabe, hailing the result a triumph for democracy. This should surprise nobody. The leaders of these countries have a straightforward attitude in favour of a certain leadership style that does not envisage or understand the concept of changing governments by anything other than liberation movements or military coups.

Indeed, the prospect of any of these countries willing a change of government in Zimbabwe was always going to be remote. They have a vested interest, in terms of their leaders' own survival, in ensuring the maintenance of the status quo. The last thing the likes of Namibia's President Nujoma or Kenya's President Moi want to see is the possibility of real democracy spreading from Zimbabwe to the rest of former colonial Africa. Their understanding of "one man, one vote" is based on the concept of "one man, one vote, once", followed by one party, one dictatorship. Mr Moi's attitude was summed up by his sickening message to his "dear Brother" on the "high esteem the people of Zimbabwe hold you in".

These despots are reared from a crop of African nationalists who waged civil war in the bush during the Sixties and Seventies and have always found the idea of Westminster-style democracy an alien concept. Occasionally they have allowed the trappings of wigs and speakers' chairs, presented by London, to give them the cloak of legitimacy and a seat in international gatherings. Why we have tolerated this farce for so long beggars belief. For years, Britain has allowed itself to be made a fool of at Commonwealth gatherings, putting up with re-enactments of "blacks vs white oppression" from a previous era.

The writing has been on the wall for Britain and its relationship with black Commonwealth countries for years. The tyrant Kenneth Kaunda, who beggared Zambia in much the same way as Mr Mugabe has Zimbabwe, once referred to Britain as a "toothless bulldog", unwittingly underlining just what little influence we have had over the internal affairs of post-colonial countries.

In his autobiography, Sir Edward Heath describes a typical meeting of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference, when, in 1971, African countries were threatening to leave the Commonwealth over the question of South Africa. On that occasion he even had to warn the Queen against attending for fear of stoking up deliberate "criticism and embarrassment". He faced an unruly conference, with African leaders determined to force their will on British policy. But he reveals that their main aim was to "bully Britain out of carrying through the European policy (seeking membership of the EEC) on which we had embarked".

Frankly, from the moment that Britain joined Europe the purpose of the Commonwealth ceased to be anything other than a talking shop. Until then, "Commonwealth preference" had given some economic trading benefits to fellow members, with Britain providing a ready market for former colonies' agricultural products. Now there is little economic value in whatever vestiges remain of the former colonial links, and the trading advantages of Commonwealth membership are pretty scant, apart from overseas aid contributions.

The focus of attention will now turn to what is to be done by the Commonwealth. Expulsion of Zimbabwe? Refusal to recognise Mugabe's regime? Sanctions? Gunboat diplomacy? None of these will be agreed. The whole enterprise works on the lowest-common-denominator basis of consensus, notwithstanding the criticisms of the elections by the Commonwealth observer team's report.

So the Commonwealth is now bound to split into two: white Commonwealth against African Commonwealth. Our own Prime Minister's ratcheting up of expectations has not helped matters. His promise at last year's Labour Party conference to sort out the "scar" of Africa and impose liberal democracy was always likely to do more harm than good, and so it has proved where Zimbabwe is concerned. It is ironic that Mr Blair, Mr Straw and other Labour MPs of their generation, who no doubt spent hours in the 1970s earning their spurs demonstrating in favour of sanctions against Rhodesia and South Africa in Trafalgar Square, should now find themselves at odds with Mr Mugabe and Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa.

The saddest omen, indeed, is the reaction of President Mbeki, who, I predict, is shaping up nicely to follow in Mr Mugabe's footsteps. I profoundly hope that I am wrong, but I saw with my own eyes British politicians in the early Eighties fêting Mr Mugabe in the same way we have been doing with South Africa in recent years.

I will never forget Mr Mugabe's triumphant visit to Westminster, shortly after his election. MPs, who are now so voluble in their condemnation, banged the desktops in a Committee Room as they vied with each to congratulate the new black hope. Only one MP, Nicholas Winterton, was brave enough to stand out against the established consensus and expressed publicly his belief that it would all go wrong. Mr Winterton has been dismissed for his outrageous and independent views, but he has deep insight into southern Africa. Sadly, Foreign Office ministers have rarely taken enough notice of him, although even Mr Straw heaped belated praise, yesterday, on him for his consistency.

The time has come for Britain to issue its own ultimatum over membership of the Commonwealth. Never mind demanding the expulsion of Zimbabwe. The tinpot dictatorships that make up too sizeable a proportion of this organisation will not allow this. Mr Blair should say that we have had enough of this farce and that we will, ourselves, leave the organisation. For many years, the US refused to participate in Unesco, and for a time even Britain opted out of membership, until it mended its ways.

Black Africa would learn that we are no longer prepared to be made fools of, either by Mr Mugabe or his fellow tyrants, who have abused the reputation of the Commonwealth for far too long.