Two interesting incidents that played out on the international scene recently clearly underlined the profound confusion of values that has crept into Western policies and attitudes towards President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Late in May (2012), the United Nation’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) announced the choice of President Mugabe as a United Nations Ambassador for Tourism, despite the fact that the international travel ban and other sanctions imposed on him by the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) were yet to be lifted. He was warmly welcomed into the prestigious “leaders of tourism” group with his Zambian counterpart, Mr. Michael Sata.
At Victoria Falls, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, where Sata and Mugabe met to sign an agreement with the UNWTO Secretary General, Mr. Taleb Rifai, President Mugabe must have been surprised and elated to hear Rifai say this about his own Zimbabwe:
“I was told about the wonderful experience and the warm hospitality of this country … By coming here, it is a recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is a safe destination.”
Following this May 28, 2012 agreement, Zambia and Zimbabwe will jointly host the UNWTO general assembly in August 2013.
Reactions to this development were prompt and unsparing. Human rights groups across the world and government functionaries in EU countries condemned it in very strong terms, just as Canada immediately announced its decision to withdraw from the UNWTO. But while Canada maintained that Mugabe’s appointment was the key factor that inspired its decision to terminate its membership of the global body, UNWTO stated that Canada had already withdrawn its membership two weeks before Mugabe was invited to join the body.
According to a report in the Embassy (Canada’s Foreign Policy Newspaper), Canada had on May 12, 2011, “formally communicated to the UNWTO, in a letter not made public, that it wanted to withdraw its full membership in the agency, according to Sandra Carvao, the UNWTO’s communications chief. It didn’t say why. ‘According to UNWTO Statutes, withdrawal is effective one year after the formal notice (12 May 2012),’ wrote Ms. Carvao in an email to the Embassy May 31.”
And while the controversy raged, the UNWTO weighed in with a “clarification” that smells and tastes like an after-thought. It denied that it had made Mr. Mugabe a tourism ambassador stressing that the same letter it sent to him was equally “sent to all heads of state and government worldwide and aims to raise awareness of the potential of tourism for development, job creation and economic growth.” Well, no matter what the UNWTO chooses to say it did or did not do, what cannot be denied is that Zimbabwe and Zambia will jointly host the UNWTO general assembly in August 2013, with Mugabe starring prominently and savouring positive global spotlight.
The world was still trying to come to terms with this development, when by mid-July (2012), the media went to town with screaming headlines that the European Union (EU) has announced its intention to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe, some of which were targeted at Mr. Mugabe and his inner circle players. The Telegraph (UK) quoted a Foreign Office spokesperson as saying that changing situations in Zimbabwe had compelled the EU to review its position.
“Since these measures were last reviewed in February we have heard a number of calls, including from the MDC-T and their partners in the Inclusive Government, for us to show flexibility in order to support the process of reform. For us what matters is putting in place what’s needed for free and fair elections, in line with the requirements of the EU Measures, and meeting the key points of progress that are promised along the way,” the spokesperson said.
If the EU expected this gesture to provoke jubilations in Harare, it must have been sorely disappointed. Spokesman for Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), Rugare Gumbo, underlined the party’s suspicion of this move, accusing the EU of harbouring “an agenda to weaken Zanu-PF,” adding rather defiantly that such a move “will not work. We will always get help from the East (Asia).” The party thinks the EU’s real intention is to position itself properly to influence the next election against it.
Now, even though Mugabe has a very fashion-conscious wife whose love for designer dresses and jewelries is widely acknowledged, was it not naïve of the UK and the EU to think that the Zimbabwean president must have been having sleepless nights over his inability to holiday and shop in London or Paris? No doubt, the 88 year-old fox in Harare knows full well that bitterness in the UK towards him is still very deep mainly because of his “land reforms” which had displaced white farmers from their vast farmlands and forced many of them to leave the country.
Securely wrapped in his memory, too, is the disastrous fate of his late friend, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, who had allowed himself to be seduced by similar gestures of rapprochement from the West, only to soon realize that it is only the foolish butterfly that hastens to think that by flying like a bird, it has become a bird, instead of a bird’s prey. Indeed, Mugabe knows that the only thing that can assuage the US and EU strong feelings against him is an opportunity to humiliate him out of power, pick him up immediately and parade him helpless, handcuffed and grossly diminished before the world, and then finally liquidate him at The Hague with an overdose of the Charles Taylor treatment.
Mugabe told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in 2009 that the United States and Britain are hell-bent on successfully executing what he calls their “regime change programme” in Zimbabwe which he says, “is aimed at getting not just Robert Mugabe out of power, but Robert Mugabe and his party out of power?” And that “naturally means,” he said, that “we dig in, remain in our trenches.”
Now digging in and remaining in their trenches have been at a very grave cost to Zimbabwe and its people. Mugabe is a man ruled by fear – the fear of tomorrow; the fear of losing power and the great security and grandeur it provides him. And so, whoever he considers, rightly or wrongly, as a possible tool in the hands of his enemies (read the US and UK) to bring him down is visited with the worst kind of ruthlessness. Thus, a reign of terror has become the worst nightmare of Zimbabweans, with human rights violations reaching unprecedented heights. Whether the situation would still have degenerated so badly, if Western powers were not breathing down his neck in their desperation to achieve a “regime change” and teach Mugabe a lesson of his life, would make an interesting study.
But the painful reality is that Zimbabweans have suffered terribly under Mugabe, and his vigorous attempts to explain it away remains exasperating, especially, as it is public knowledge that himself, family and cronies are insulated from the unimaginable suffering Zimbabweans have been through under his watch. In due time, he ought to be called to account, but what many people are not agreed upon is whether that should happen at the International Criminal Court (ICC) sitting at the Hague, which ought to have been named the “Special Court for African Leaders Who Fell Out With the West.”
The problem with this court is that whereas it kindles hope in Africans that there is now a judicial platform with the capacity to duly prosecute their errant leaders and serve as deterrent to others, there is also this unavoidable feeling of sadness and humiliation arising from what the existence and nature of this same court say about them and their place as Africans in the world. Now did Robin Cook, former British Foreign Minister, not say the following about the ICC on BBC Newsnight some years ago: “If I may say so, this is not a court set up to bring to book prime ministers of the United Kingdom or Presidents of the United States.”
Now, one can really understand why this court is circulating serious discomfort across Africa. And one may even ask: Would Robert Mugabe be today hounded by Western powers and targeted for an indictment at The Hague if he did not undertake the Zimbabwean “land reforms” which displaced the white farmers from their vast farmlands, even if he was operating the worst repressive regime in Africa? Indeed, it is difficult to sell the viewpoint that it is the concern and care about democracy and the suffering of poor black Zimbabweans that are fueling the current global anti-Mugabe strong feelings. Well, Mugabe is even out there boasting that he had to fight a crude, repressive, British colonial regime to bring democracy to Zimbabwe, so who should preach democracy and human rights to the other, he appears to be asking. Postures like these have helped to deepen the estrangement and mutual dislike between Mugabe and his erstwhile friends.
In the Western world, frustration is setting in due to the failure of every effort, overt and subterranean, to bring Mugabe down. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, despite massive Western support has only managed to become the weaker party in a power-sharing arrangement brokered for Zimbabwe by South Africa after the disputed 2008 elections. And with the hope of democratically unseating Mugabe and his ZANU-PF dimming with each passing day, and Tsvangirai appearing increasingly uncomfortable with being widely labeled a Western stooge, predictions about the likely situations that may emerge are becoming pretty difficult.
Incidentally, Zimbabwe’s economy appears to be showing signs of recovery, thus denying the West another very potent tool it has so far deployed in its overwhelming campaign against Mugabe. In fact, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in November 2010 stated that Zimbabwe was “completing its second year of buoyant economic growth.”
With many years gone already and the ever defiant Mugabe ageing gracefully, with Zimbabwe and its rich minerals still in his grip, strong yearning for his downfall appears to have given way to desperate expectations of his death. And so, each time Mugabe jets out to Singapore for what his spokespersons tersely describe as “routine medical check up” the Western media would go frenzy with screaming headlines about a sick and dying Mugabe. The most embarrassing happened last April (2012). Following a rumour by an obscure Zimbabwean online newspaper, virtually all the major and minor papers from London to New York and the rest of the world celebrated with screaming headlines that Mugabe was down with prostate cancer “dying” or “fighting for life” in a Singapore hospital. Some even reported that he had named a successor. But as a lively Mugabe flew into Harare a few days later and emerged from the aircraft looking (in his own words) “as fit as fiddle,” the embarrassment was monumental within Western media circles.
When Zimbabwe won independence from Britain in 1980, Mugabe was a darling of the West especially, the UK, which promptly awarded him an honorary knighthood. He made enchanting reconciliatory speeches and gestures at the end of the bitter liberation war from which Britain was able to reassure itself that Mugabe would always be trusted to remain a “good boy,” and would never undertake any measures that would affect British interests in Zimbabwe where a tiny minority of white settlers controlled greater portions of farmlands to the great disadvantage of the vast majority of black Zimbabweans. (This was despite Mugabe’s claims that at the Lancaster House discussions, they had agreed with the British that there would be “land reforms.”) And for the next ten years, while Mugabe undertook policies that ushered the country into prosperity in manufacturing, mining, agriculture etc., he was celebrated by the global media and feted in Western capitals from where glowing tributes always flooded his doorsteps.
It is widely believed that Mugabe’s land reforms which largely contributed to his present troubles with the Western world were not totally informed by patriotic motives – to let black Zimbabweans benefit from equitable redistribution of the lands. Those who hold this view point to the fact that the recovered lands ended up mostly in the hands of his cronies and fellow war veterans. The belief was that the land reform policy was a desperate political move to consolidate his hold on power at a time it appeared to be slipping from his hands. And this has proved a very costly decision for him and his country. Indeed, Zimbabwe has practically passed through the valley of the shadow of death.
And now that Mugabe’s relationship with the West has further worsened, he has begun to respond to new advances from eager suitors from the East. These have now come in with ideas and projects to stimulate growth in Zimbabwe. In February 2011, Zimbabwean authorities announced that the Chinese will over the next five years undertake in the country massive investments worth $10 billion dollars (£6.19bn). This sounds like a huge windfall, although more discerning minds would rather see what is happening as replacing the much despised British economic domination with that of the Chinese.
Reports abound of how Zimbabweans who work with these Chinese are treated like slaves in their own country, while Mugabe is out there boasting that situations are a lot better in his country. Indeed! Although about two years ago, a Zambian friend showed me a 40 billion Zimbabwean dollar bill which he said could not buy a loaf of bread, what is clear is that Zimbabwe appears to have, at least, discovered the path to economic discovery. And with this, Mugabe and his ZANU-PF would even dig in further and remain in their trenches till the bitterest end.
Could it be then that these developments are causing the Western world to rethink its terms of engagement with Mugabe in order not to lose out to their competitors from the East in the mad scramble for African natural resources? Is this new thinking and attitude represented in the seemingly panic and confused gestures we saw in the UNWTO appointment and the EU’s moves to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe? Is Mugabe then having the last laugh?
A reader in South Africa posted this comment on an online report about the UK and EU decision to lift sanctions on Robert Mugabe:
“The British Government does not act out of charity. It is scrapping sanctions on Mugabe because Britain needs Mugabe more than Mugabe needs Britain. It may not be about the oil stupid! But it certainly is about the 40 other exploitable minerals sitting under Uncle Bob’s feet. The 4000 or so white farmers that must be disgusted by this are mere “collateral damage” in the war for Zimbabwe’s resources. Remember why Mugabe is hated, he gives land and minerals to the black poor. Highly inconsistent with the UK’s extractive multinational capitalist approach.”
Quite interesting, but what then happens to Mugabe’s horrible human rights record over which the Western world has raised ear-splitting cries? Across the world, many regard him as a mass murderer who should be tried in an open and unbiased court and made to pay severely for his crimes if found guilty?
Will he now go free just because the West was unable to extract its pound flesh from him or will he have his day in a Zimbabwean court some day, soon? Or will his eventual successful reconciliation with the West (though he appears to be meanwhile playing Andrew Marvell’s “His Coy Mistress”) simply obliterate those horrible records against him name? When will Africa develop the capacity to bring rogue African leaders to book on its own soil and for its own good? This should provoke a lot of serious thinking across Africa.