Zimbabwe, a nation with a rich history and a unique legacy intertwined with the Commonwealth, finds itself at a critical juncture. Having been suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002 due to allegations of human rights violations, electoral fraud, and political repression, Zimbabwe's international reputation and struggling economy suffered greatly.
The last few years have seen significant steps taken to address the problems that resulted in expulsion, including a compensation package to farmers expelled by former President Mugabe. The $3.5 billion payment package showcases Zimbabwe's commitment to rectifying past wrongs and moving towards reconciliation.
As the country embarks on a path of political and economic reform, is it time to seriously consider the benefits of readmission?
Firstly, let us consider the benefits that Commonwealth membership would offer to Zimbabwe, a country grappling with high levels of poverty and unemployment. At a basic level, the country would benefit from the full range of support and assistance offered to Commonwealth member states, including economic, technical and educational aid.
However, the benefits of membership extend far beyond formal Secretariat support. The Commonwealth is made up of 56 countries which share similar values and objectives, a global network that accounts for nearly one-third of the world’s population. Membership offers valuable networking opportunities to Zimbabwe in rebuilding its economy and re-establishing its position in the international community. The Commonwealth is a vast web of interpersonal, intercultural, and commercial connections, a valuable resource for a resurgent Zimbabwe. Over the last two decades, sanctions have characterised Zimbabwe's economic fortunes. The discussion going forwards must ask whether these sanctions should continue to apply, given their adverse effects on civilians. The efficacy of international sanctions remains contested. It is only by earnest engagement that Zimbabwe can see sanctions lifted; the Commonwealth is a perfect vehicle for this engagement.
As Harare seeks to rebuild its reputation, the Commonwealth offers the ideal platform for dialogue and cooperation on issues of global concern, such as climate change, trade, and security. It is a forum which allows members to promote their own interests, whilst working together towards shared goals by forging meaningful partnerships. These international conversations are the perfect foundation for a measured lifting of sanctions, in line with the need to address concerns about Zimbabwe's political stability and human rights environment.
This must be a two-way street, however. It's clear that the Commonwealth has much to offer Zimbabwe - but what does Zimbabwe have to offer the Commonwealth? The answers are many and varied.
Once known as the 'breadbasket of Africa', with the right support, Zimbabwe could again ramp up its agricultural production and play a significant role in addressing global challenges related to food security.
At the same time, while the world invests more and more in renewable technology, critical minerals are becoming ever more important. Zimbabwe has significant surface deposits of copper, lithium, platinum and gold, all of which have a vital role to play in enabling green technologies to thrive.
Despite a challenging commercial environment, there has been significant investor interest in Zimbabwe, with many local companies and external investors looking to be part of an ongoing economic revival. One example is CBZ Holdings, Zimbabwe's largest financial institution. As a result of President Mnangagwa's leadership, CBZ's new international board's work so impressed US authorities that Treasury-imposed sanctions were lifted and a $385 million fine was overturned.
Along with Swiss conglomerate Mabetex Group, CBZ is undertaking a $100 million investment in a new financial incubator, which will form the basis of a new financial services hub in Harare. The Harare International Financial Hub seeks to attract international tenants to a new campus, offering state of the art facilities and amenities including a world-class convention centre. The Mabetex Group are also starting work on a new 5-star hotel, spa and medical centre near Victoria Falls, aimed at attracting high-end tourists from around the world.
This is by no means an isolated example. Zimbabwe is making great strides in facilitating trade and promoting investment amongst Commonwealth member states in Southern Africa. Private investors have partnered with Government to invest $300 million in the reconstruction of one of the busiest border crossings in the region, the Beitbridge Border Post. Commitments by Government to creating an effective enabling environment for businesses and foreign investors has motivated other private players to invest in the modernisation of the country's other border posts. Integration across the system will promote transparency and reduce cases of transit fraud and smuggling. Improvements such as these are slowly making Zimbabwe a credible place to do business again.
For Zimbabwe, the case for Commonwealth re-entry is becoming more powerful by the day - it is committed to addressing the mistakes of the past. The country's 16 million citizens should not be held captive by the actions of former leaders. In a dangerous and uncertain world, friends are hard to come by but absolutely essential - the alternative for Harare is an uneasy alliance with Moscow or Beijing. Zimbabwe, like any other nation, requires the assistance and support of a friendly international community.
Re-joining the Commonwealth could foster closer ties between Zimbabwe and like-minded Anglophone nations, the first step in a realignment away from dangerous global actors. As the war in Ukraine has made clear, the West cannot always rely on partners in the Global South to forego their economic interests in order to take a shared geopolitical position. The Commonwealth's renewed involvement and influence in Zimbabwe's affairs would instead promote shared values, democratic principles, and economic cooperation.
The argument for Zimbabwe's readmission to the Commonwealth is compelling. With access to a like-minded global network, Zimbabwe can rebuild its international reputation, gain access to crucial educational resources, and play an active role in global affairs. Outstanding domestic challenges should be seen as an opportunity for Harare to demonstrate its commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. The emerging multipolar world must be approached in the spirit of pragmatism - more than ever, the pragmatic decision would be to offer Zimbabwe a path back into the global community for which it feels such an affinity.
This article has been co-authored by Oliver Scheidt (Centre for Commonwealth Affairs), Prasad Bhamre (Canadian investor), Korab Toplica (British investor), Marc Holtzman (Chairman, CBZ Holdings), and Glynn Cohen (La Frontiere Group). This work does not constitute a formal endorsement by the Centre for Commonwealth Affairs of Zimbabwe's readmission to the Commonwealth, and merely reflects the views of its authors.