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Obasanjo to Mediate Zimbabwe's Commonwealth Suspension - 2003-12-08

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo says he will try to get Zimbabwe back into the Commonwealth, which renewed the country's suspension during a divisive summit in Nigeria. Zimbabwe subsequently announced that it was pulling out of the group of mainly former British colonies.

Mr. Obasanjo said Monday that maintaining the suspension was what he called a difficult consensus, but that all Commonwealth nations should accept it, even if they are opposed.

"Consensus means, really, that you can smile with one side of your face, and frown with the other side at the same time," he said.

Mr. Obasanjo said he was disappointed Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, reacted to the decision by saying he was pulling Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth entirely.

But the Nigerian president said he would still act as a Commonwealth mediator between Zimbabwe's government and its opposition, so democratic conditions there could improve and Zimbabwe could regain full membership in the group.

"We are determined to do everything humanly possible within the values and the principles that we cherish in the Commonwealth to assist Zimbabwe, to facilitate the return of Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth," he said.

Mr. Obasanjo says he will send a Nigerian official to Harare before the end of the year to discuss this.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who was in favor of maintaining the suspension, was also dismissive of Mr. Mugabe's decision to pull out of the Commonwealth. He said extending the suspension was a show of support for people in Zimbabwe suffering from what he called a lack of democracy and poor governance under Mr. Mugabe.

If the Commonwealth had walked away from its responsibilities, the essential hopelessness of those people would have been increased," he said. "At least they know that there are a lot of people around the world inside the Commonwealth who believe that and understand that a restoration of proper democratic approaches inside their country is necessary, and an essential precondition to their lot improving."

Several countries from southern Africa had called for the suspension to be lifted, so that Zimbabwe could be less isolated. They argued its problems could be better resolved within the Commonwealth.

The division marred the four-day summit and completely dominated discussions.

Late Sunday, Mr. Mugabe told leaders of Nigeria, South Africa and Jamaica he was pulling out of the Commonwealth because of the renewed suspension. He has said the group is being hijacked by what he calls racist western countries opposed to his forced redistribution of white-owned land to blacks.

Zimbabwe was first suspended in March 2002, after Commonwealth observers said Mr. Mugabe's re-election had been marred by rigging and state intimidation.

Leaders from many other African countries say taking part in Commonwealth summits is very beneficial to have their voices heard on global issues, and also to attract investment from within the group. The next Commonwealth summit will take place in two years time in Malta.