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The UK wants Zimbabwe back in the Commonwealth

U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (2nd L) poses for a photograph before talks with his Zimbabwean counterpart Sibusiso Moyo (C) and other delegations at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, U.K., on April 20, 2018.
Reuters | Hannah McKay
U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (2nd L) poses for a photograph before talks with his Zimbabwean counterpart Sibusiso Moyo (C) and other delegations at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, U.K., on April 20, 2018.

The U.K. has said it would strongly support Zimbabwe's re-entry into the Commonwealth, a 53-nation bloc of former British colonies that could bring economic benefit to the once-pariah African state.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and his Zimbabwean counterpart Sibusiso Moyo met Friday at a roundtable at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London.

"The U.K. would strongly support Zimbabwe's re-entry" into the Commonwealth, a press release from the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office said.

"The historic meeting ushers in a new era in U.K.-Zimbabwe relations and symbolizes Zimbabwe's commitment to engaging meaningfully with the international community."

The meeting signifies the latest step in Zimbabwe's attempt to reinstate its relationships with other countries, after decades of international isolation under former President Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe, who ruled the former British colony for nearly four decades, was ousted in November as part of a military coup. He was succeeded by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, formerly Mugabe's deputy.

Mnangagwa has been trumpeting a "Zimbabwe is open for business" mantra in an attempt to resurrect the nation's economy, which has been crippled by hyperinflation and sanctions. He attended the World Economic Forum's summit in Davos, Switzerland, in January, and penned an editorial for The New York Times in March.

Mnangagwa's first foreign visit outside of Africa was to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing earlier this month. The U.S. is exploring lifting its sanctions on Zimbabwe.

Mugabe withdrew Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth in 2003 in a row over sanctions.

"While Zimbabwe has made impressive progress, there's still much to do," Johnson said in the statement. "We must remember democracies are not made in a day."

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (2nd R), his Zimbabwean counterpart Sibusiso Moyo (R) and other politicians pose at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, U.K., on April 20, 2018.
Reuters | Hannah McKay
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (2nd R), his Zimbabwean counterpart Sibusiso Moyo (R) and other politicians pose at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, U.K., on April 20, 2018.

Mnangagwa has promised a free and fair election in Zimbabwe in July, and has said that he will invite international observers to the event. Johnson described the expected vote as a "bellwether for the direction of a new Zimbabwe."

Re-engagement with the Commonwealth "will pressure Mnangagwa to implement reforms, which in turn will help to convince potential funders, such as the Paris Club donors and multilateral lenders such as the IMF, to approve new financing," William Attwell, practice leader for sub-Saharan Africa at research firm Frontier Strategy Group, told CNBC via email.

"Zimbabwe will also benefit from Commonwealth-linked development programs, for instance on youth skills development" and "use its membership as a platform to forge trade linkages with some of the world's fastest-growing economies such as India," he added.

The U.K. is currently providing £91 million in aid to Zimbabwe for the 2017/18 financial year, including an additional £5 million announced in February to support free and fair elections in the country.