Commonwealth leaders last night agreed Zimbabwe would remain suspended from the 54-nation group and appointed the Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, and the Commonwealth secretary general, Don McKinnon, to monitor Zimbabwe's progress over the next two years, diplomatic sources said.
The decision, to monitor Zimbabwe until the next Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting, represents a victory for Britain and the anti-Mugabe camp. But, according to the sources, Thabo Mbeki, the South African President who has fought hard to get Zimbabwe readmitted, said this did not mean President Robert Mugabe's regime would be off the agenda for the rest of this meeting. This ensures Zimbabwe will continue to dominate proceedings today.
Last night, the only official word on the decision of a six-member committee appointed by CHOGM to discuss Zimbabwe came from the New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who said: "They have a form of words which they are still negotiating and they will continue to negotiate over this evening.
"I understand that a clear view of a majority of the group is that the suspension should continue and it should be made clear what benchmarks Mr Mugabe should have to make to be let back in."
Earlier in the day, Zimbabwe's President Mugabe said his government would pull out of the Commonwealth after his ruling Zanu-PF party passed a resolution calling for Zimbabwe's withdrawal.
The suggestion that the Nigerian President should, as host of this conference and chairman for the next two years, monitor Zimbabwe had been turned down at a meeting of African and Caribbean leaders. President Obasanjo had hoped to get the issue agreed early on in the three-day conference. Yesterday's full meeting, including 40 heads of state, turned the Zimbabwe issue over to the committee of six, consisting of two countries in favour of readmitting Zimbabwe South Africa and Mozambique two against Australia and Canada and two others, Jamaica and India.
That committee recommended Mr Obasanjo's original proposal be accepted and Mr Mbeki backed down, sources said. The decision comes as a great relief to the British, who regard the Nigerian leader as a safe pair of hands. Although in favour of readmitting Zimbabwe earlier in the year, Mr Obasanjo changed his mind two weeks ago when he went to Harare to assess things for himself. He found Mr Mugabe as unaccommodating as ever.
Earlier, a South African- sponsored challenge to the exclusion of Zimbabwe was defeated when the heads of government voted 40 to 11 in favour of Mr McKinnon continuing as secretary general. The election was seen as a protest against the policy on Zimbabwe. It also destroyed the myth of African solidarity over Zimbabwe. Eleven votes for the rival candidate, a former Sri Lankan foreign minister, showed that only a handful of African countries support South Africa's stand to have Zimbabwe returned.
Mr Mugabe's threat to withdraw was made at a two-day meeting in Zimbabwe where, before 3,000 cheering delegates, he said the Commonwealth had been hijacked by racists who were interfering in Zimbabwe's internal affairs. He said there was no backing down from the resolution, because his government had been treated unfairly.
"The Commonwealth is a mere club, but it has become like Animal Farm, where some members are more equal than others. How can Blair claim to regulate and direct events and still say all of us are equals?" he said.
Commonwealth leaders suspended Zimbabwe last year, saying Mr Mugabe had rigged his re-election in 2002 and harassed opponents.
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