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UK supports Zimbabwe’s return to the Commonwealth

The UK will support Zimbabwe rejoining the Commonwealth, it has been reported. The invitation will almost certainly be accepted, as President Mnangagwa has been on a global charm offensive, bedecked with his trademark scarf no matter what the weather.

Zimbabwe is desperate for international acceptance after being cast out in the Mugabe era. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002, following the land invasions, although Mugabe withdrew in 2003 before formal expulsion, with some Commonwealth leaders torn in their solidarities. Being invited to Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London last week as an observer was a strong signal of reengagement.

So will rejoining make any difference? The answer is probably not much, but symbolism is all in international relations. Any moves are unlikely to happen until after the elections, but the meeting between UK Foreign Secretary and Foreign minister Subisiso Moyo, on the sidelines of last week’s meeting was all smiles.

Imperial anachronism or powerful trading network?

The contemporary relevance of the Commonwealth is much debated. Some regard it as an anachronistic hang-over from Empire, with all the subservient trappings of allegiance to a foreign, once-ruling colonial monarch. The excellent Afua Hirsch argues that attempts at revival are simply imperial dreams dressed up as Empire 2.0, pushing neoliberal policies on the poor, developing world.

Somewhat fancifully, others see the Commonwealth as the basis for a new post-Brexit global trading network, with the UK at its centre, and Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and selected others connected in a powerful grouping to take on the world. This is of course rather absurd, but there will be moves in this direction as Theresa May’s government attempts to make the best out of the inevitably disastrous Brexit deal, with their silly slogan ‘Global Britain’.

While of course the Commonwealth of Nations is a relic of empire (its earlier incarnations were of course the British Commonwealth and the Imperial conferences), the idea that Britain could have any imperial ambitions today is of course only in the fevered imaginations of the likes of Boris Johnson. Today’s imperial powers are firmly elsewhere. The Queen likes to talk of the Commonwealth as a ‘family’; also rather ridiculous, until you remember dysfunctional families, familial power relations and imposing matriarchy.

So beyond the PR value, does Zimbabwe rejoining make any sense? Is this a sop to imperial power, which the liberation war fought? Will Zimbabwe benefit preferentially from new trade deals? Will it make any difference at all?

Zimbabwe’s role?

Following Zimbabwe’s Independence, Commonwealth connections were important. Yes, trade, but also diplomacy, including around the then seemingly intractable ending of apartheid in South Africa. With many Commonwealth countries being front-line states, they were at the forefront of the struggle. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings were important affairs. Remember the CHOGM in 1991 in Zimbabwe? It was a big deal, with a landmark declaration proclaimed. It is rare such an array of dignitaries end up in Harare.

Just maybe such unlikely connections, and the fanfare that goes with it all – can help today. With the polarisation of global power – a regressive US and an all-powerful China – the concerns of many parts of the world don’t get a look in. But in the Commonwealth, with a different constellation of the not powerful and once powerful, other agendas can be raised.

The more radical proposal to reinvent the Commonwealth group for the modern era through appointing a non-white small island state leader is off the cards for now, as Prince Charles has been accepted as the Queen’s successor. But maybe in time a reconfiguration away from the old colonial power can occur.

Vital global debates

The London CHOGM has generated some important debates on global issues. The terrible treatment of the disenfranchised so-called Windrush generation – the children of those who came by sea from the Caribbean as British citizens to help re-build the UK economy after the Second World War – has put in the spotlight the positive benefits of global migration. The madness and inhumanity of restrictive UK immigration policy has been put to the fore, prompting apologies from the PM and Home Secretary.

After the vicious, regressive Brexit debate, this is a breath of fresh air. Perhaps this will be extended to others. What about the many Zimbabweans in the UK who struggle with the immigration service, but offer important work, including – as memorably put by Jo McGregor – ‘joining the BBC’ (the British Bottom Cleaners) in social services?

The London meeting has also raised the important issue of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Although not Zimbabwe of course, many Commonwealth countries have long coastlines or are islands (yes I know, easier to invade and colonise), and so suffer disproportionately. Whatever you think of now UK Environment minister Michael Gove, he’s certainly good at seizing the moment politically. A marginal debate at one of the branches of the UN is now projected into the limelight with dozens of prime ministers and presidents offering support. It may be that billions of cotton buds and plastic stirrers are literally a drop in the ocean, and a UK ban will have little effect, but again the symbolism and politics count.

New solidarities for a polarised world

So, while accepting that the ideas of a new global trade pact are fanciful and that of course the Commonwealth has a dodgy imperial past, Zimbabwe re-joining could have some benefits. Together with other small countries that never get a look in at the UN or other global bodies, collectively they can raise important questions of global consequence (think climate change and small island states), and generate solidarities that are otherwise not possible in our polarised world.

As an operation with a very small budget but a big international presence, if imaginative and progressive, the Commonwealth can take some important initiatives, and Zimbabwe should be there to start and steer them.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland. Picture credit: Meeting between Boris Johnson and Subisiso Moyo, London, from UK FCO Flickr.

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What will Brexit mean for Africa?

June 23rd saw the UK vote for Brexit. A populist rebellion was provoked by an internal dispute in the Tory party, and chaos has been unleashed. We don’t know the full consequences yet, but it’s not going to be good.

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Commentaries before the vote speculated on implications. First there’s trade. The UK is an important trading partner with Africa, and deals with the EU govern much of this. Only this month an EU Economic Partnership Agreement was agreed with the Southern African Development Community, allowing free trade access to Europe for some countries. Now all these arrangements have to be renegotiated bilaterally through the World Trade Organisation, and its 161 members. It will be a slow and costly readjustment, creating much uncertainty. Baffled by this madness, Chinese official commentary put in nicely: Britons were “showing a losing mindset” and becoming “citizens of a nation that prefers to shut itself from the outside world”.

Then there is aid. The UK has been a substantial contributor to the EU aid programme, providing 2 billion euros, including 14.8% of the European Development Fund. While I would be the first to admit that not all of this was effective or efficient, it does allow a broader mandate than the increasingly narrow focus of the UK aid spend. And the UK influence on the portfolio has always been important.

But perhaps more important than the flows of cash is the influence of the UK on European development debates. Whether the UK government or NGOs, think tanks or research institutes, adding to the discussion about, for example, the impact of EU domestic farm subsidies on African agriculture, or providing input into the framing of development efforts, has been really important. This has been particularly so since the establishment of the UK Department of International Development in 1997 and the G8 Gleneagles agreement in 2005, and a commitment – amazingly across governments of different political hues – to a progressive aid agenda, particularly in Africa. This role in European positioning globally will be much missed.

The Brexit campaigners argued for ‘taking back control’ of aid and trade. But in a globalised world, this small island mentality is absurd. Britain thankfully no longer rules the waves, nor has vast swathes of the globe as colonies under its control. But sometimes the rhetoric suggests we do – or should do. This is of course naïve and arrogant, and betrays an extraordinary lack of understanding of contemporary global political economy.

The UK’s diplomatic ‘soft power’ has been often exercised most successfully through the EU, as part of a joint commitment to change – whether around issues of conflict, migration or development. This allowed a common voice, and a more measured position. This was certainly the case in Zimbabwe. With, until recently, serial failures of UK diplomacy, the EU has provided a useful bridge and a more effective approach to engagement, through a succession of EU ambassadors to the country, who did not carry the colonial baggage of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This will be sorely missed, and not only in Zimbabwe.

The UK voters who pushed for Brexit were worried about jobs, livelihoods and immigration. Those who will lead the country as result do not have these concerns at the centre of their agenda. They have a vision of free trade and further economic liberalisation: exactly the processes that will undermine yet further the poor and marginalised who voted to leave. This is the tragic contradiction of the ‘democratic’ result, and will lead to more strife into the future.

A cross-party and sustained commitment to internationalism, social democratic freedoms, human rights and inclusive global development, as enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals, may not survive this sea-change in political fortunes in the UK. The racist slogans and posters and the narrow nationalism that dominated the campaign reveal an uglier side to British (perhaps English) politics; most shockingly shown in the political murder of MP Jo Cox – a passionate campaigner for more progressive views on social justice and development.

Who takes over in the UK following the resignation of the PM, David Cameron, really matters. Not just in the UK, but in Africa too. At the last election in 2015, I argued on this blog that we should “be scared, very scared” about the prospect of a shift at the top of the Tory party. Now this is certain, everyone should be very worried indeed. We don’t yet even know the candidates, but the political opportunist Boris Johnson is at the head of the race.

Johnson’s attitudes to Africa can only be described as backward and colonial. His slur on Barack Obama revealed much. His tales of his holiday in Tanzania frame Africa as a last wilderness, threatened by growing African populations, and could have come from a colonial explorer from the nineteenth century. His rants on Zimbabwe betray a shallow understanding of history and politics, and as one commentator described it, an “obnoxious and overbearing British imperialist mentality”. His close links with a certain section of the UK political elite (many in the House of Lords), who have consistently prevented a sensible debate on Britain’s relationship with Zimbabwe, show his political prejudices. It is not good news.

With the pound collapsing, remittances to Zimbabwe will be more expensive for the diaspora, and the prospects of investment will decline. The chaos in the global markets provoked by this crazy populism will take time to stabilise, and will affect the poorest more than the rich. And the nasty side of British politics, rejecting a progressive internationalism, will undermine the UK’s standing in the world. We all will be poorer because of Brexit, including in Africa.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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