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As Zimbabwe Prepares For Elections, It Seeks To Rejoin The Commonwealth


Change is afoot in Zimbabwe. That country is preparing for elections. And the new leader there is trying to chart a new path for a country that has been known as a pariah for generations. Here's one example of that change. Fifteen years ago, former president Robert Mugabe quit the Commonwealth. The new president of Zimbabwe has applied for renewed membership in this group of mainly former British colonies. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is joining us now following this story from Zimbabwe. Thanks so much for being with us, Ofeibea.


MARTIN: What would rejoining the Commonwealth mean for Zimbabwe?

QUIST-ARCTON: A huge amount because that means it rejoins the community of nations. And Emmerson Mnangagwa, who, in a palace coup - we have to admit it - November last year took over from Robert Mugabe, who had been in power for 37 years and was pushed out, he has said that he wants to rejoin, make global international links again. So if the Commonwealth accepts Zimbabwe back - and don't forget why Zimbabwe left, because it criticized Robert Mugabe - it would be a very good thing for Zimbabwe because, as you say, it's jettisoning this pariah status. But it comes with conditions.

MARTIN: Conditions like what?

QUIST-ARCTON: Ah. To rejoin, Zimbabwe must demonstrate that it complies with the values of the Commonwealth charter, including democracy, rule of law, plus the protection of human rights. And that comes from Baroness Patricia Scotland. She's the secretary general. So it's not automatic, but I think Zimbabwe will be allowed in. And already Emmerson Mnangagwa has made a concession. He has said that Zimbabwe would welcome Commonwealth observers for this election that he is meant to be announcing any time now. So those are the sorts of noises the international community wants to hear.

MARTIN: So what is life in Zimbabwe like under Mnangagwa?

QUIST-ARCTON: Still tough. You talk to Zimbabweans, they say there is still no money in the system despite the new leader's promises, that they are still struggling. But I also get the impression that Zimbabweans are still prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, although he's cut from the same cloth as Mugabe. It's very important to remember that. It is still the governing Zanu PF party in power. The opposition was not invited into the government that will lead Zimbabwe into the elections.

But it seems that people say, let us see. And Emmerson Mnangagwa will probably be his party's candidate. I don't know whether he's declared yet. So let's see once we get to these elections. But they are pivotal elections. This is a litmus test to see whether Zimbabwe is prepared to - you know, to tread the line of democracy, of human rights - respect for human rights and especially rule of law after so much, so much political violence over the years under Mugabe.

MARTIN: Do people have faith that these will be free and fair elections, something Zimbabwe hasn't been familiar with?

QUIST-ARCTON: Do you know what? Zimbabweans have been on the streets in the past, especially when it looked as if Mugabe was going to be pushed out of office. And they have said, enough is enough. So Emmerson Mnangagwa and his government have got to tread carefully. People are now not afraid to speak and will speak their minds on the streets if they're not happy.

MARTIN: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton for us this morning. Thank you so much, Ofeibea.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBROSE AKINMUSIRE'S "HENYA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.