/ 23 September 2007

‘Tall and black’ vs ‘white and colonial’

”Mugabe stands very tall and black,” boasted Nathaniel Manheru on Saturday. ”Brown stands white and colonial.”

Words are not minced among President Robert Mugabe’s allies. And this weekend they were knife-sharp. Manheru, political commentator for the Herald, the mouthpiece newspaper for Zimbabwe’s government, wrote an especially lengthy and furious column, laced with historical references, blatant racism and antipathy, decrying the arrogance of the ”infantile” British government.

It even sneered at a ”Scottish moment” in British politics, drawing a comparison between British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Zimbabwe’s white minority rule leader Ian Smith — both Scots, both reviled.

But although such rants are commonplace in the much-ridiculed but nonetheless avidly read state-owned paper, it does act as a reminder of the painful wounds of colonialism that have contributed to keeping the 83-year-old dictator president of Zimbabwe in power for 27 years, making his African neighbours slow to condemn as they watch the country collapse; and of the intensity of the diplomatic row that has erupted over Brown’s unilateral decision to boycott a Europe-Africa summit if Mugabe shows up.

The row is over who will be looking at whose empty chair at the meeting, planned to be held in Lisbon in December and intended as a key moment for European countries to try to recover ground they have lost to China — whose influence is now soaring across Africa on the back of billions of dollars applied in aid and investment. There have been three African-China summits in as many years.

No one wants a repeat of 2000 when Tony Blair boycotted a conference over Mugabe’s presence, or of 2003 when a summit in Lisbon was abandoned over the same issue — European Union sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe in 2002 included a travel ban on the dictator. And this year, the Portuguese hosts say, the potential rewards of closer ties between the two continents outweigh antagonism between the leaders of Britain and Zimbabwe.

No rebuke

Whitehall sources insist Brown’s decision to boycott is not meant as a rebuke to Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, who will host the meeting.

”In the coverage it has been about the prime minister and Mugabe,” the source said. ”That is not how he sees it. The assumption is that Mugabe is going. If he is there, the prime minister doesn’t want to attend. But he is not saying he should not go. He is not dictating who should attend. He is just saying he will not go.”

Other nations have weighed in — Zambia’s President Levy Mwanawasa has stepped up to say if Mugabe doesn’t go, then he won’t either, and two empty African chairs would cause considerable embarrassment to fledgling African unity.

There is now the possibility that the Nordic countries will line up behind Britain.

Tom Cargill, the Africa programme manager at London-based think tank Chatham House, said the quarrel is hijacking the summit — and has potentially doomed it. ”It’s looking like it’s going to be a mess either way,” he said. ”It’s a real problem, because they need to have a summit, but already the Zimbabwe issue has clouded things.”

Zimbabwe’s United Nations ambassador, Boniface Chidyausiku, was quoted as telling the BBC that Mugabe would attend. ”Gordon Brown has no right to dictate who should come to Lisbon,” Chidyausiku said. ”Definitely we are going if we are invited, because we are part of Africa.”

But despite the great political rift he has opened, Brown isn’t for budging. A source close to the prime minister said that for Brown ”this is a personal passion” that has arisen out of his loathing for a man he holds personally responsible for the destruction of a country that was once on course to be Africa’s greatest post-colonial success story.

”He is more than happy to make a stand alone if need be,” the source said.

Mixed reaction

It has drawn admiration from some — Labour MP Kate Hoey called his stance ”a breath of fresh air” — and accusations of manipulation by others; the Tanzanian president of the Pan African Parliament, Gertrude Mongella, said ”arm twisting” would do no one any good.

Since Labour first came to power it has had an uneasy approach to Zimbabwe — every criticism seemed only to boost Mugabe’s standing at home as a man who stood up against the old colonial white power trying to meddle in African affairs.

But this week Britain will ratchet up the pressure on Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF party, and set a challenge to Africa’s other nations by calling on both the UN and the EU to appoint humanitarian envoys to Zimbabwe to provide regular reports on the state of human rights there. Britain will make its move in New York at Tuesday’s meeting of the UN Security Council, whose current members include South Africa.

A month later David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, will call for stronger European action when he uses the next meeting of EU foreign ministers to call for an EU envoy to Zimbabwe.

The call for humanitarian envoys is not just another powerful signal that Brown is abandoning Britain’s softly-softly approach to Zimbabwe; it is also seen by some as a gauntlet thrown down to South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has been charged with finding a quick-fix solution to Zimbabwe and stop it becoming an out-and-out failed state.

South Africa has been criticised at home and abroad for not taking a tougher line with Mugabe over human rights and electoral fraud. But everyone admits that talking to Mugabe, so conscious of his position in many parts of Africa as a revered anti-colonial freedom fighter, is no easy task.

Mbeki — in charge of a country riven by crime and HIV/Aids — has privately said that dealing with ”Bob” is the single most difficult task of his office. Even that most diplomatic and forgiving of all men, Nelson Mandela, when asked what he would miss least about being president, is reported to have said simply: ”Bob Mugabe.”

South Africa is currently one of 10 elected members of the Security Council and will have an immediate chance to reply to the British initiative.

Gentle pressure

Britain does not share the criticism of the South Africans. Officials insist Britain supports Mbeki’s efforts to apply gentle diplomatic pressure to its neighbour. But Brown’s call for a UN envoy indicates that Britain is thinking, if only in private, that the policy of leaving Zimbabwe to its neighbours may not be working.

One Whitehall source highlighted Brown’s determination to appoint a UN envoy by saying: ”At the UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday, we will raise Zimbabwe. We will call for a humanitarian envoy who would report back to the Security Council on a regular basis.”

Frustration with Mbeki is not entirely fair, according to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) inside Zimbabwe. ”Talks are going well, Mugabe has made some major concessions,” said one MDC figure. ”Although on the key one over the elections in March 2008, we are nowhere.”

And South Africa’s Aziz Pahad, Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, defended his country’s policy of quiet diplomacy. ”All our interventions on the Zimbabwean issue have been to prevent a failed state on our doorstep,” he said.

Brown has been thinking for months about changing tack, a process that has taken place without the knowledge of many old Africa hands in the British Foreign Office. Some senior diplomats were caught by surprise by Brown’s announcement about the boycott and opinions are varied as to the wisdom or otherwise of his stance.

”I don’t think you can talk about Brown’s decision in terms of right or wrong. I think this situation has been, and is being, handled very badly on both sides of the world, and although Africa draws much strength from these summits, it is at the African meetings where most progress is made on the Zimbabwean situation,” said Martin Rupiya, a former senior lecturer in strategic studies at the University of Zimbabwe.

”The problem is that no one has seen any evidence of any progress in the South African talks, so we see Mugabe being cheered by crowds across Africa and you do not see the progress for his people, so Africans lose faith too.”

And so the impasse continues — Mugabe’s critics accuse him of economic mismanagement, failure to curb corruption and contempt for democracy; Mugabe accuses his domestic opposition and the West of colluding to destroy his economy, which suffers acute shortages and inflation that, according to the International Monetary Fund, may hit 100 000% by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, on Saturday on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, where food shortages are rife and transport services and energy supplies are crippled, the police were occupied with curbing a situation of civil unrest — trying to stop a hungry crowd of desperate people from killing ”for the pot” an adult giraffe that had wandered into a township. — Guardian Unlimited Â