top of page

The Crocodile and the Commonwealth: Zimbabwe’s Path to Western Acceptance

Angus Ireland

Zimbabwean Soldier During Protest. Image credit: Tafadzwa Tarumbwa via Public Domain Pictures.

The 18th of April was Zimbabwe’s Independence Day. It also marked five months until the fifth anniversary of former authoritarian leader Robert Mugabe’s death, and six months before the October biannual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Samoa, where Zimbabwe hopes to attend as the bloc’s newest member. With the decision on Zimbabwe’s re-entry to the Commonwealth expected before October, it is worth highlighting the lack of democratic progress made in a country whose ruling party still wishes to seek international acceptance. 

Zimbabwe and ZANU

Following over 70 years within the British Empire as Rhodesia, initially as a private enterprise under monarchical charter and later a self-governing British colony, the state declared independence in 1965 amid mounting British pressure for black majority rule. A 15-year insurgency by black-nationalist communist guerillas prompted the fall of white-minority-led Rhodesia and the newly named Zimbabwe’s first election under British monitoring.

The dubious 1980 election propelled the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) party, the primary rebel faction led by Robert Mugabe, to the nation’s helm. Over the following two decades, the people of Zimbabwe were subject to economic mismanagement, human rights abuses, and massacres of the minority Ndebele and Kalanga peoples – all of which were largely overlooked by the international community. The expulsion of many white farmers from their lands in 2000 triggered Western sanctions on individuals and firms within the country, and the fraudulent 2002 election saw Zimbabwe’s suspension from the Commonwealth, followed by its eventual withdrawal.  

Similarly fraudulent elections continued throughout the 2000s and 2010s as the economy continued to deteriorate. By the mid-2010s, Zimbabwe, formerly hailed as Southern Africa’s breadbasket and the continent’s second most industrialised state, found itself amongst Africa’s most impoverished nations – reduced to relying on importing food and exporting natural resources. Zimbabwe’s president Mugabe, once seen by many black Africans as a stalwart against colonialism, was in his nineties and had lost the support of even the most nostalgic anti-imperialists in Southern Africa. 

Finally in late 2017, Mugabe was ousted by former security chief Emmerson ‘the Crocodile’ Mnangagwa. The military coup, painfully condoned by the African Union and the South African Development Community, was met with a mixture of apprehension and relief by many in Zimbabwe. 

Zimbabwe and the Crocodile 

Mnangagwa’s assumption of office signalled a shift in the country’s diplomatic stance and emphasised its readiness “for a sturdy re-engagement programme with all nations of the world”. In his inaugural address, an olive branch was extended to the West, urging “those who have punished us in the past to consider their economic and political sanctions against us.” This clear attempt to court favour with Western nations was furthered six months later in May 2018 where, likely seeing an easy route into Western acceptance, Mnangagwa formally applied to re-join the Commonwealth of Nations. 

The Commonwealth undoubtedly desires Zimbabwe’s readmission. Idealists argue that the country’s return would bolster its democratic rehabilitation and economic prosperity. Realists, on the other hand, likely perceive Zimbabwe’s re-entry as staving off accusations of neocolonial attitudes from an organisation still headed by the British monarch. This desire to reintegrate Zimbabwe is challenged by the governing party’s intolerance of dissent. Granting re-entry to an authoritarian state would thus degrade the Commonwealth’s foundational principles of democracy and human rights. 

The result has been an excruciating effort by the Commonwealth to promote Zimbabwe as a potential member whilst ignoring its human rights abuses and anti-democratic governance. For example, the Commonwealth election monitors invited for the corrupt 2018 Zimbabwean election reported that they were “unable to endorse all aspects of the process as credible, inclusive and peaceful”. Four years later, a Commonwealth Delegation visiting Zimbabwe in November 2022 commended the country for making "significant progress in its journey to rejoin”. 

In response, almost mockingly, Zimbabwe’s August 2023 election was marred with military and secret service intimidation, questionable election practices, and the pre- and post-election persecution of political activists. The subsequent Commonwealth report took great pains to whitewash an election arguably less democratic than that held in 2018.

Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth

Since the August 2023 election, little has been reported on Zimbabwe’s application. Despite almost six years since Mnangagwa’s application for readmission into the Commonwealth of Nations, no observable progress has been made towards fostering democratic reforms. 

This stagnation is no surprise. The Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF, formerly just ZANU) have been in power for 44 years. It does not ‘run’ the state, it is the state. As long as ZANU-PF can maintain power over Zimbabwe, any new policy it adopts will preserve the party’s entrenched authority. For authoritarian regimes, the notion of democratic change is antithetical as it inherently risks their survival.

Still, a lack of democratic change may not stop Zimbabwe’s ascension into the Commonwealth. Brunei’s absolute Islamic monarchy has had the same King for 56 years, the last 40 of which have been as a member. But in a period of international democratic backsliding, its re-entry would send an explicit message to existing and potential members that adherence to democratic principles is still optional. 

With the outlook on Zimbabwe’s membership uncertain, one thing is known: entry into the Commonwealth won’t affect Zimbabweans’ ability to choose their government, and ZANU-PF’s control over Zimbabwe continues, and likely will continue, unabated.

Angus Ireland is an Australian Federal Government economist and recent graduate of the University of Adelaide. All views expressed in this article are his own.


bottom of page