Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Britain’s diplomatic ineptitude in Africa

Posted by CM on May 25, 2008

by Chido Makunike

The article about Malloch Brown in The Guardian’s May 9 edition (Malloch-Brown’s vision for Africa: having an aid policy is not enough) shows what is so wrong with Britain’s general engagement with Africa.

Malloch Brown may be the UK’s grandly titled “foreign office minister for Africa, Asia and the UN,” but it is not for him to have “a vision for Africa.” Someone please kindly tell his lordship that the idea of a British “vision” for Africa is outdated by, oh, about 50 years. That is what the end of colonialism was about, for natives to do their own visioning! That the process is wrenching and difficult does not at all alter the desire of people all over the world to determine their own destiny.

Interestingly, within hours of its initial appearance, the heading of the article was changed to From the UN to Whitehall, with a will to change our view of Africa. Perhaps someone at The Guardian or at Whitehall noticed just how patronising the original heading was.

Malloch Brown seems to think his title is an excuse to think and talk like a British colonial governor of old. Alas Lord Malloch Brown, I doubt that the natives today will take kindly to this. I am one native who does not.

The article mentions Zimbabwe as “the immediate preoccupation.” Whose? If the suggestion is that it is Britain’s special “pre-occupation,” that is utter nonsense, and a sign of how successive British governments have failed to get over a patronising colonial hangover with regards to Africa.

The Guardian says, “Britain, as the former colonial power, has to tread delicately.” The emotional British political and media frenzy over Zimbabwe in the last few weeks hardly qualifies as treading lightly. Zimbabwe is in deep distress but it is no longer Britain’s particular responsibility. British concern over events in Zimbabwe should not go beyond that of any other member of the world community of nations. It should not be that of a mother hen-picking a recalcitrant child.

Malloch Brown holds forth on Zimbabwe’s recent controversial election. In arguing for a run off election between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, which the opposition leader has now accented to, Malloch Brown makes the valid point that because of the closeness of the presidential election’s results, a run off would hopefully produce a decisive winner, “to prevent a weak compromise government.” He then shockingly goes on to pick sides with “the cleanest way is for a second round that gives a decisive victory to the opposition, which seems the likely result.”

That may indeed be the likely result, but in what capacity is Malloch Brown, an appointee of a foreign government, showing a partisan hand like this? Is this an example of Britain treading lightly? This is shoddy from someone who earlier in the article speaks somewhat boastfully of his international experience at the UN. Regardless of Malloch Brown’s or official Britain’s preferred Zimbabwean ruler, surely they should limit any comments to a process that gives a decisive victory to the Zimbabwean people by enabling them to make their choice freely and having it respected. That choice may well be, and probably would be for the opposition but it is not Malloch Brown’s business to say so.

That Britain cannot stand Mugabe is no secret. Malloch Brown is probably not far off when he guesses that “true support for the MDC is running at 75%.” But how is that Malloch Brown’s business? Particularly given Britain’s unhappy engagement with Zimbabwe and Rhodesia before it, it is hard to see any way in which his haughtily speaking of the country’s electoral mess from the vantage point of a colonial administrator discussing events in a territory he governs helps. Not only is this an inappropriate role for the official of a foreign country, it is just such unhelpful comments from British officials over the years that have so compromised Tsvangirai and the MDC. One does not have to be a supporter of Mugabe’s to find Malloch Brown’s whole tone offensive, as I do as a Zimbabwean.

Malloch Brown says Southern African leaders “probably” have a better finger on the pulse than Britain does. Those leaders have fumbled helplessly over how to assist in trying to help prevent Zimbabwe’s implosion. But Malloch Brown’s casual insult disguised as a back-handed compliment is rich, given Britain’s long and continuing diplomatic ineptitude towards Zimbabwe. Whatever the Southern African leaders’ faults, they certainly do not suffer from the colossal British failure to understand African sensibilities in regards to Zimbabwe. That failure includes not being able to distinguish between the antipathies of many Zimbabweans to their ruler from a desire to determine their own fate without interference from other countries, least of all ex-colonial master Britain.

If his job is primarily that of a diplomat handling his country’s relations with other countries, it is hard to see how Malloch Brown’s comments and whole attitude can do that in regards to Zimbabwe. That attitude is why Britain’s levels of goodwill and influence in Africa do not match the level of “help” it renders.

Britain’s bond with its African ex-colonies has left enough in common between the two sides that in the post-colonial era could have been cultivated to build positive, mutually beneficial relations. That this has not happened is partly a result of Britain’s surprising failure to learn to deal with those countries in ways that foster genuinely good relations built on mutual respect even when there are areas of disagreement.

Added to the failure of many African countries to “grow up” into the responsibilities of self-determination has been Britain’s failure to get beyond thinking of Africans as still being under its charge. Even a supposedly enlightened “Africa hand” like Malloch Brown shows this attitude, which has helped make relative Johnny-come-lately China leapfrog over countries like Britain in its diplomatic and increasingly commercial relations with Africa. Despite all the unknowns of the developing ties with China, African countries have embraced relations with a country which is so much “stranger” to them than Britain partly because of how they chafe at Britain’s continuing nanny attitude.

Having no small role in the history of countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe that has partly contributed to their present-day turmoil, Britain largely fails to influence developments in them positively. The Guardian refers to frustration, apparently by bwana Malloch Brown, “that Zimbabwe is hindering a repositioning of Africa in the eyes of the west, as not just being this broken problem, this dependency region of catastrophe, aid and climate change.”

One wonders how much Malloch Brown has his finger on the pulse if he attributes Africa’s image in the Western mind, developed over centuries of stereotypes, to Zimbabwe’s travails of the last few years. Many elements of the turmoil in Zimbabwe are unfortunately the “normal” state of being in many African countries, though for some reason without quite the same level of British “concern” such as that purportedly being shown by his lordship for the oppressed Zimbabweans. The unusual levels of cynical British “concern” for Zimbabwe belie Malloch Brown’s contention in The Guardian’s article that “the dispute is no longer seen as between Mugabe and the colonial power, but between Mugabe and the world.”

In terms of image, Mugabe has increasingly become his own worst enemy, but the thinking of official Britain exemplified by Malloch Brown’s blatantly partisan and interfering comments leave one in no doubt that it has “concerns” in regards to Zimbabwe that go beyond the neutral, the benevolent and the humanitarian. To make that so apparent, as Malloch Brown does, is merely the latest example of the kind of diplomatic ineptitude that has helped leave Britain with little or none of the kind of leverage it would wish to have in Zimbabwe and others of its former colonies.

Perhaps if Britain tried much harder to get its finger on the African pulse it might have better relations with the natives, thereby also serving its interests better than even throwing aid money in order to buy influence has been able to do.

One Response to “Britain’s diplomatic ineptitude in Africa”

  1. aranjones said

    You might argue that Malloch-Brown has spoken more openly than one would expect from a diplomat – but the rest of what you have written makes it sound as though you have swallowed Mugabe’s distortions and lies, and are so desperate to see neo-colonial insults that you wilfully misinterpret reasonable statements.

    You suggest that ‘immediate preoccupation’ is the same as ‘special preoccupation’ – but special preoccupation implies a long-term approach, whereas immediate preoccupation implies the exact opposite.

    Your conviction that the only reason a Westminster government could have for being preoccupied with Zimbabwe is a desire for influence ignores (and is offensive towards) the great deal of hard work that is done by volunteers in England to demand that the government supports the people of Zimbabwe at a time when they face such an appalling situation.

    Also, your use of the term Britain is offensive to the large numbers of people working extremely hard to bring freedom to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies do not have a colonial history in Africa, and have not made statements about Zimbabwe. You would show a far better understanding of the current situation in what you call Britain if you referred to the English government.

    Those ordinary people in England who lobby and protest against Mugabe do so out of love for Zimbabwe, and a deep desire to see the murder, the rape and the torture brought to an end.

    If you listen to the politics of hate, and if you choose to analyse within the context of the politics of hate, you are helping to support the politics of hate.

    If you work and think within the politics of love, then the only thing which merits discussion at the moment is HOW to build a future for Zimbabwe where murder, rape and torture are no longer a part of Government policy, and where the economy is repaired.

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