- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

Zimbabwe was suspended Tuesday from the Commonwealth, a group comprised of mostly former British colonies, in the wake of a rigged election that returned President Robert Mugabe to power last week. The Commonwealth's decision came unexpectedly, at the hands of the same African neighbors who have watched Mr. Mugabe's campaign of violence and electoral fraud for some time without flinching. On Monday, South African President Thabo Mbeki and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo were still trying to get Mr. Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvingarai to set up a national unity government. Like other African nations, they declared the results of the election legitimate.

By Tuesday, however, the two African leaders and Australian Prime Minister John Howard had handed down the decision to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth, along with a lengthy statement refuting the idea that the elections had been free and fair. While the move to keep Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth's council meetings is a belated and superficial punishment, the fact that the impetus for the decision came from South Africa and Nigeria should send a strong message to Mr. Mugabe that he will be held accountable for his corrupt practices.

Zimbabwe's southern neighbors, and South Africa in particular, have given Mr. Mugabe a pass for too long. Zimbabwe's neighbors have stood by while Mr. Mugabe, who has abused human rights and ruled as a dictator for several decades, has gotten his military involved in Congo's civil war, exploiting the war-torn country's mineral resources and fueling corruption. His "land reform" program, which takes land by force from whites and gives it to blacks, has likewise caused little outcry in the region. At a summit of southern African nations held shortly before the Zimbabwean balloting, Mr. Mugabe's neighbors gave him nothing more than friendly advice that he should hold free and fair elections. South Africa's observer team even gave high marks to Zimbabwe's election which was marred by the killing of opposition members, the burning of the opposition's printing presses and office building, the expulsion of international monitors and the silencing of the media. Not to be forgotten are Mr. Mugabe's last-minute attempts before the election to retain power by making criticism of the government a crime and by drastically reducing the number of polling booths in areas where the opposition was popular. The South African monitors stated that the "conduct of the electorates, security forces, party agents as well as the closely followed rules of voting, counting and transparency procedures, all contribute to the relative peacefulness of the voting days," according to a report in South Africa's Business Day. Whatever safari the monitors were on, they were obviously far from the polls.

It is therefore appropriate that Mr. Mbeki should be one of the three leaders to make Tuesday's decision on behalf of the Commonwealth and to state the truth about Zimbabwe. "The presidential election was marred by a high level of politically motivated violence and … 'the conditions in Zimbabwe did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors,' " read the Commonwealth statement, which included comments from its observer group. It is too bad that South Africa and its neighbors did not have the boldness to speak the truth until now. As a result, Zimbabwe's people are stuck with the consequences.

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