The Public Posturing of Robert Mugabe

Yesterday we were privileged to watch Mr. Mugabe speak at the General Assembly of the United Nations. It is always a performance worth watching, even if only from curiosity. This time I read the whole statement and I think there were some key pointers in this year's speech.

I will ignore the usual diatribe about sovereignty and the right of independent States to do what they want at home providing it does not undermine regional peace and security - Smith said the same thing, as did successive leaders in the pre 1994 South Africa, so does the Burmese Junta and the North Korean oligarchy. I will also ignore the usual statements on Britain and the United States.

What were interesting were two references to the ability of regional institutions to deal with the (imputed) Zimbabwe problem. Also a reference to the role Mr. Mbeki is playing in the ongoing talks in South Africa. In addition to these key statements he repeated his commitment to democratic elections in 2008. These three policy positions revealed in this speech are all very important. They maintain his commitment to hold elections - that is a good thing, Burma and Korea have not done that to date; to ensure they are democratic and he has admitted the role of both the SADC and South Africa.

I have always argued that the one person in the world to whom Mr. Mugabe cannot say 'no' is Thabo Mbeki. I think this key speech reveals that very clearly. No criticism here of his African colleagues or of South Africa even though he knows they are forcing him to walk a narrow road to the next electoral polls in Zimbabwe. This is encouraging and I am sure that neither Brown nor Bush will lose much sleep over his tired attacks on their credence as global leaders.

Perhaps of greater concern is the impending participation of Mr. Mugabe in the next EU/ACP summit in Portugal. This is a much more bread and butter issue for the many countries who will attend. While it may not have the global significance of a UN general Assembly, the EU is the world's largest trading block and by far the most important source of financial aid and other resources for the many small and impoverished countries that will attend.

At stake is the whole relationship between these long associated and powerful States and their former colonies as they put behind them the neo colonial relationships of the Lome era and look forward to a new set of relationships - both political and economic that meets the needs of the grouping in a rapidly changing world. Just this morning the EU announced the end of the Sugar Protocol - an agreement that had meant a great deal to the ACP States and to Zimbabwe. It has been worth at least US$20 million a year to this country since Independence in 1980 - a total of US$540 million.

For Zimbabwe our membership of the ACP Grouping and our inclusion in the preferential trade arrangements that prevail under the existing agreements and protocols is very important. As a source of funds, the EU will be the largest potential source of development funding once we have sorted out our politics and the EU will almost certainly be our most important trading partner, certainly in conjunction with the individual Member States of the EU.

So this summit of the EU and the ACP States comes at a very strategic and important time. The issues to be resolved are complex and critical to all who participate, but particularly countries like Zimbabwe - small, land locked and poor. So anything that detracts from its main purpose would be a tragedy. Mugabe could be just that disruptive element.

He will, if present conditions prevail, attend. If Britain boycotts the summit it will take on the form of a strident conflict between the former colonial powers and their colonies. The wounds of that era are still raw even after all these decades of postcolonial experience and history. Mugabe will use the occasion, just as he has just done at the UN, to exploit these wounds and rub salt in them - for no other purpose than to detract attention from the failures of his regime and the total collapse of the Zimbabwe economy and social infrastructure under his disastrous leadership.

The support he will garner from the ACP countries and the anger that this will invoke from EU Member States will distort the delicate relationship that exists between these two groups and further complicate - negatively, the environment for the discussions that will take place at all levels. Mugabe knows this - it is what he is best at, a spoiler, no matter what the consequences so long as it feeds his ego.

What I would most like to see happen is the total postponement of the summit to next year; same date and place. Then the new government in Zimbabwe would be ready to take its place at the talks and put a positive tone into the whole process. But that will not be possible - there is too much at stake. No African State is going to back a call to exclude Mugabe from the summit even though behind closed doors they groan at the possibility and know the consequences.

So we may be stuck with this situation. What ACP countries have to understand are the consequences of having rogue States in their midst and the very real costs to their own societies. It is difficult to compute such costs but in the case of SADC the costs in lost opportunity and political terms are enormous - in fact many times the total value of the Zimbabwe economy itself. South Africa will lose at least US$5 billion in GDP activity in 2007 let alone the social costs of crime and the burden of maintaining another 4 million economic refugees as a direct consequence of the Zimbabwe crisis. No developing country that is serious about uplifting the economic conditions of the majority in their country can afford this.

It's a very high price to pay to feed the ego of one man - an 83 year old man of another era that has lost its relevance to the new world we all work and live in.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 28th September 2007