Mugabe seemed to make such a good start in Zimbabwe. Things have got steadily worse since the massacres in Matabeleland and the increasingly violent and racist approach to land reform, ruining many more black than white Zimbabweans. Now we have an election which on any reckoning was a travesty—as the Commonwealth observers, including the team’s African members, have courageously recognised. Almost as sad as the descent of a once democratic and prosperous Zimbabwe into dictatorship, state violence and economic ruin, has been the refusal of some African leaders to recognise the evidence of their ears and eyes and publicly to condemn the elections as manifestly neither free nor fair. It’s hard to believe that someone as sharply intelligent as President Mbeki, who spent so many years in the west before the collapse of apartheid, can have failed to understand the catastrophic effect in the world outside Africa on his standing and credibility as a statesman of his failure (so far, at any rate) to speak up for universal democratic and libertarian principles, by telling the truth about the Zimbabwe election. The Nigerian observers, like the South Africans, also disgraced themselves by granting their certificate of validity to the election, prompting the grim suspicion that the Commonwealth troika of past, present and future CHOGM Chairs (the Australian, Nigerian and South African heads of state or government), entrusted with the task of deciding whether Zimbabwe should be suspended from the Commonwealth for its betrayal of elementary Commonwealth principles, will funk that straightforward decision by a majority of 2 to 1 and go instead for yet another fudge, perhaps persuading Mugabe to form a Government of National Unity with token representation for the opposition, or to make some other symbolic gesture of reconciliation, in exchange for retaining Zimbabwe’s membership of the Commonwealth. Perhaps I am under-estimating the moral courage of Presidents Obasanjo and Mbeki: I devoutly hope I am. If not, there will be enough bitterness within the Commonwealth, much of it contaminated by more than a trace of racism, and between Africa and the rest of the world, to threaten the future of the fledgling Partnership with Africa project by which Mr Blair rightly sets such store and which holds out so much promise for the rescue of Africa from the abyss.
The Earl of Ancram, Conservative shadow foreign secretary, has been calling on the Blair government to "take a lead" in the Commonwealth and the world in denouncing Mugabe and insisting on sanctions against Zimbabwe. Nothing could be more foolishly counter-productive. For Britain to be in the forefront of (mainly) white nations and governments calling for action against Zimbabwe simply plays into the hands of Mugabe’s propaganda with its cheap allegation that the British government is engaged in neo-colonial, imperialistic attempts to re-impose its rule on its former colony in the interests of its white kith and kin, a charge which, however nonsensical, can be guaranteed to produce the required Pavlovian reaction among too many white as well as black bigots. Now if ever is the time for Britain to take a back seat and leave it to others to try to work out the least damaging available outcome. But the omens aren’t good.