Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Archive for November, 2008

Zimbabwe government shows how to lose friends and fail to influence people

Posted by CM on November 26, 2008

The way the Mugabe government mismanaged the abortive Kofi Annan-Jimmy Carter-Graca Machel visit last week shows just how out of control over its image that regime has become, despite ever more strident propaganda from the media it controls..

The proposed visit was a no-win situation for the Mugabe government. To reject the visit of the self-appointed team of “Elders” gave the world all the wrong signals, despite those elder being self-appointed global troubleshooters with no defined role. And yet it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the visitors would earn the government added high-profile negative international publicity by simply stating what all Zimbabweans already know: the situation in their country is becoming increasingly desperate and is showing all the signs of “humanitarian crisis.”

The Mugabe government rather predictably accused the trio of pro-opposition bias. But the fact of the matter is that Mugabe & Co. have over the years conducted themselves with such arrogant callousness to the people of Zimbabwe that even the points on which they might have once been legitimately able to claim a shady “conspiracy” against them pale in comparison to their own misdeeds.

That reputation for callousness was only re-enforced by the government’s mishandling of the proposed visit, or even of the rejection of the visit. It was awkward and bad enough to refuse the visit, but it was worse to then give confusing, conflicting and implausible explanations for having done so.

‘We are busy with talks with the opposition’ was one early excuse for not welcoming the visitors I read. ‘We are busy with the agricultural season now that the rains have started’ is another I heard intimated. ‘We have already done our own assessment of humanitarian needs’ was yet another. And it just seemed to go down from there onwards.

It got worse when the resulting international derision at these weak excuses proved so bad and and made the Mugabe regime seem so insecure that it reverted to its standard mode when cornered: to lash out with insults, particularly at Annan and Carter,  that only further re-enforced an image of thuggishness.

Having analysed that they would get negative publicity either way, on a purely propaganda management  basis it would have probably been better to let the “Elders” in than refuse them entry, even if it meant then tightly choreographing their itinerary. Repressive governments have to do this all the time, and it is fascinating that the Mugabe government believes its image is now so low that it could not get much worse by the entirely predictable firestorm of negative publicity resulting from keeping Annan and Company away. This suggests really having given up the propaganda fight; of having accepted that way beyond the issue of how things got to this point, the situation in the country is so dire that almost no objective observer could rule in favour of the Mugabe government in terms of responsibility for the country’s very worrying state.

Despite the government’s efforts to restrict access to the local and international media, Zimbabwe is enough of an open country and covered well enough by home-based and visiting citizens,NGOs, diplomats, etc that the indeces of dysfunction are fully on display: closed schools and hospitals, the police beating up peaceful demonstrators, whole neighbourhoods that now go for weeks or months without water or electricity, etc. The much publicised cholera epidemic has probably been building up for along time now given the situation with water and electricity; there is hardly anything sudden about it.

So for all but the most gullible or cynical “fact-finders,” the country is in an accelerated crisis mode that is impossible to dismiss on the basis of “ah, but it is all because of the ‘illegal sanctions’ and the worldwide conspiracy against a Mugabe who is just trying to ’empower’ his people.” Too much water has gone under the bridge for that to stand ground for all but very few.

The cholera epidemic is probably no worse than in the DRC or other places on the continent, but that is to judge Zimbabwe by a very low standard. And the government propaganda machinery is probably quite right to say there are no “facts” the elders were likely to “find” that are not already widely known about the extent of the breakdown in Zimbabwe and the suffering it has spawned. There is unlikely to be any more world assistance that would have been mobilised by the three “Elders” than the UN, the Zimbabwe government itself, NGOs and others who are already engaged have been able to raise. Probably quite intentionally, the visit of the three sent out the message that the Zimbabwe government has (1) lost control over many of the basic systems of a functioning modern society of Zimbabwe’s (once) level of “sophistication and (2) that the Mugabe government just doesn’t care very much for the plight of the people in whose name it still claims to cling to power by every gambit imaginable.

Yes, Annan has previously let slip that he has as little use for the Mugabe government as it does for him, so I do not find the regime’s charges of his likey sympathy for the opposition to be far-fetched. And the trio’s claims that they were only going there for humanitarian monitoring purposes sounded hollow for other reasons. It is not possible to separate the humanitarian situation from the failure of the opposing political parties to find some practical way of sharing power as they committed to do way back in September. The extent of the suffering has gone beyond it being important “who is to blame” for this shameful state of affairs, ZANU-PF or the MDC. Flush with his “success” at brokering a political deal in Kenya, Annan a few months ago almost seemed desperate to follow that up with a similar effort in Zimbabwe. He volunteered his services in that regard but no one seemed to take him up on it, hardly surprising given the Mugabe government’s antipathy to Annan when he was UN Secretary General. He was considered either not supportive enough of the Mugabe government, or too critical of it.

In any case, it sounded vaguely disingenuous of Annan and friends to say “we just want to go and see for ourselves how much people are suffering,” as if it is a kind of show to be enjoyed. On many grounds, the stated reasons for the visit were as thin as were the hapless would-be host government’s reasons for blocking it.

There was a lot of to and from between the three and the Mugabe government about when the process of trying to bring about the visit came along. We may never know how the process was begun and how it proceeded before the visit was finally called off when the Mugabe government made it clear it was going to hang tough and possibly even be willing to embarrass the visitors had they gone ahead with the visit even in the absence of a welcome mat. It would have been awful to all concerned, but far from unthinkable, if the three had been turned back at Harare airport if they had tried to use their star power to enter the company. Whereas most other countries would then have sheepishly, reluctantly let the dignitaries in at that point, the Mugabe government might well have been delighted to brush up its bad boy image by turning them back, perhaps roughing them up before video cameras for good measure!

That aside, it was also awkward and ill-advised for Annan and his colleagues to give the impression they would try to barge in even after the regime had made it abundantly clear they simply would not entertain the visit. Purely on a tactical basis, by saying so Annan only pushed the paranoid, cornered Mugabe regime further into its isolationist bunker. It was naive for Annan to think that a regime that is particularly prickly about issues of “sovereignty” would contemplate backing down on and at that point. There was a brief point at which the “elders” insistence on attempting to go ahead with the visit minus visas or an even unofficial guarantee of entry seemed every bit as childish as the Mugabe government’s hot-headed, overdone bravado to prevent it.

I have no trouble seeing how the Mugabe government really must have felt panicky and resentful at having to deal with the additional image headache thrown up by the proposed visit. It has enough to try to deal with given a widely publicised array of many other things not working. But in how it dealt with the difficulties presented by the abortive visit, it took decisions which arguably only made that image, and possibly also therefore the actual situation on the ground, much worse.

The refusal of the visit and the attempts to impugn the reputations of the three visitors, coming as it did at the same time when there is a new barrage of reports about the failure of many systems which had for years been creeping along (hospitals, schools, electricity distribution, water reticulation,etc), has been a big net loss for the Mugabe government.

Carter in particular seemed shell-shocked that he was not able to barge his way into Mugabe-land, perhaps for the first time really coming face to face with the hard-headed “the world can go to hell” toughness that has made Mugabe ride roughshod over all opponents for his almost 30 years in power. Carter and friends then had to contend with meeting Morgan Tsvangirai in South Africa, after which the one-time US president then rather lamely said at a press conference that the situation in Zimbabwe was “much worse than they had expected.” “Lame” because of how implausible the given “fact-finding” aspect of the visit was to begin with, given the many sources of readily available information about how much the level of hardship in Zimbabwe has increased in recent weeks and months.

But by design or default, “the elders” have shown how the Mugabe government seems much more concerned with scoring debating points than at actually tackling political, economic or other problems for the benefit of ‘the people’ it still claims are its main reason for ignoring the electoral wishes of those same people!

Carter then also became the latest of a long line of people to predict total “collapse” in Zimbabwe “soon.” Obviously this is somewhat a matter of definition: Zimbabwe continues to work in ways many African countries have still never done, yet there are many grounds on which some might say the country has already “collapsed.” But this is usually taken to mean a general Somali-type breakdown, including not just of centrally controlled systems, but of the state itself. If that is what Carter means, Mugabe has shown for the ten years or so we have been hearing these sorts of predictions that counting him out may be premature, no matter how dire the situation may have become for the ordinary citizen. Carter may have been politically correct for his circles to predict as he did, but outspoken US Ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGheeemay may have been more realistically on the ball when he recently said Mugabe may be more firmly in control today than he was a year ago. If “collapse” therefore is taken to mean “Mugabe weak, soon gone,” well, much worse suffering in Zimbabwe now does not necessarily equate to that definition of “collapse” at all!

There may not be collapse in that sense, but there seems little doubt that this episode is another major milestone in the Mugabe regime’s many self-inflicted wounds. However long its eventual exit may take, this was a public relations fiasco that in one way or another will contribute to the eventual tipping over.

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SADC did not guarantee Zim parties a particular mediation outcome

Posted by CM on November 26, 2008

We all now know ZANU-PF and the two MDC fantions recently went to SADC to ask for the regional body’s help to break the parties’ impasse over how to divide up cabinet portfolios. And we all know that many Zimbabweans are outraged at SADC’s recommendation that the parties share the ministry that is said to be the main bone of contention, home affairs.

First of all, how embarrassing that a country’s politicians should fail to resolve such a basic function of governance on their own, and should not feel ashamed to appeal to foreigners to help them find a way out. If they can’t find some agreement on their own on such an issue, what hope is there that they will manage the many weightier issues that will come after they all get their desired ministerial portfolios and associated perks?

A partisan, no-longer professional police has been an important instrument of control and repression for Mugabe. It is has been used with devastating, ruthless effectiveness to prevent the MDC from assuming the power that they quite likely first out-rightly won in their first electoral contest, back in 2000. It is therefore understandable that for the MDC, a power-sharing agreement with Mugabe is largely meaningless as long as he retains control over the instrument of repression that the ministry of home affairs has become.

And I can understand the concern at the great difficulty in implementing a shared responsibility for the ministry between the two main parties, as SADC recommended as an outcome of their mediation. The very fact that Mugabe seemed ready to live with such an unlikely arrangement is an indication to many cynics of how he is probably quite satisfied that this allows him to retain effective control over the ministry while posing as being very reasonable to SADC and the world.

Many Zimbabweans who have commented on this recommendation have correctly pointed out that the parties are under no obligation to accept SADC’s proposal. This has been partly in response to those like junior MDC faction leader Arthur Mutambara, who argue that having agreed to go to SADC for mediation on the issue, they cannot now be seen to be “defying” the regional body and that they must live with the recommendation. Mutambara has been careful to point out that his faction has been in favour of Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC faction being “awarded”  the home affairs ministry, and that he like many others was surprised and disappointed by the SADC proposal that ZANU-PF and Tsvangirai’s MDCfind some way to effectively co-run it.

But here is where a messy, embarrassing saga that reflects extremely poorly on all of Zimbabwe’s politicians gets even more murky: it suggests the Tsvangirai MDC agreed to the idea to be bound by SADC’s mediation under false pretenses. Once you agree to binding mediation, you have accepted that you and your opponent have failed to find a satisfactory resolution to your differences on your own.

It also means you accept the possibility that your chosen mediator may recommend a solution you find unpalatable. If the parties did indeed agree beforehand to abide by the recommendations of  SADC, to then turn around afterwards and say “ah, we reject them, we had thought they would be more favourable to us” sounds churlish at best.

As understandable as is the MDC’s disappointment at the SADC ruling and the justification of their suspicions of Mugabe, their stance does nothing for their image, particularly if all the parties agreed beforehand to be bound by that ruling. Knowing the possibility of an unfavourable-to-them ruling, it might have been better for the MDC not to commit to such binding arbitration. They would then have been left with the challenge of finding other ways to try to exert leverage to get control of the home affairs ministry and the police.

But that is part of the problem, and presumably an important part of their reason for agreeing to mediation by SADC in thefirst place : the MDC’s electoral showing and whatever moral high ground they occupy in the opinion of a good part of the world have not swayed Mugabe, who still has control of all the instruments of force.

It is an admittedly very thorny issue, but agreeing to the very ideas of power-sharing and external mediation is to accept that all the parties will have to live with some things they are not happy with.

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Yet another lost Zimbabwean farming season

Posted by CM on November 26, 2008

This is wishful thinking on my part, but it would have been nice to imagine that even in the midst of the long-running political stalemate, someone in the Mugabe government would have been paying a lot of attention to agriculture. It’s neglect accounts for a lot of the reason where are where we are today. And a well-functioning agriculture still offers the best hope of reducing the country’s many economic and social ills, and laying the foundations for eventual recovery when the politics are finally sorted out.

But of course, political survival by the Mugabe regime now comes before everything, although I would have thought that repression aside, success in agriculture would have strengthened the government’s hand rather than leave it as embattled and friendless as it has become. Political attention and economic resources are now mainly taken up by fighting off the many real and imagined enemies of the regime.

And when one or another grand agricultural scheme has been announced over the years, it has floundered for one or more of the many reasons that the rest of the country is in such a mess. Even when an idea has been good on paper, there are now so many other things wrong in the economy for such interventions to work as they would in relatively normal times. Hyper-inflation, fuel shortages, the high cost of forex, lack of security of tenure on farms, lack of trust and confidence in the political leadership: all these and more  have conspired against all the best laid plans of Mugabe fixer Gideon Gono and the rest of Mugabe’s machinery to try to kick-start agriculture.

Perhaps partly as an inducement to ZANU-PF and the MDC to find a resolution to their embarrassing sparring over how to divide political positions, the South African government recently announced having budgeted a $30 million assistance package  for Zimbabwean agriculture. At the beginning of the rain season, this was one of the most friendly gestures any government could offer to Zimbabwe at this time of great hunger and suffering.

Weeks after the offer, our politicians seem no closer to resolving their differences than they were months ago and quite  reasonably, the South Africans are not willing to sink support into a situation of such un- certainty and dysfunction.

The withdrawal of loan, grants and other kinds of agricultural assistance that Zimbabwe would normally expect has been described as part of “illegal sanctions” by Western countries by the Mugabe government. But it is not quite so easy to make the same charges against a South African government that has often seemed to bend over backwards to support the Mugabe government when much of the world was urging it to instead take a ‘get tough’ stance.

Years after the political fat cats of all parties have satisfied themselves that their personal needs have been taken care of in any settlement they reach with each other, Zimbabwe will still be paying for the ruin and neglect it has brought on its agriculture.

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Sadly and predictably, Zim biodiesel plant produces little

Posted by CM on November 26, 2008

One will have to put up with one of the most annoying phenomena of the blogosphere: the “I told you so” post.

There is a lot of interest in the world in biofuels to replace fossil fuels. Even with fossil oil prices having recently come down to less than $50 a barrel from a recent high of almost three times as much, this is a temporary reprieve and it makes sense to continue to explore sustainable alternatives before fossil oil eventually runs out.

Zimbabwe has particular need to aggressively looking for alternatives, having been largely cut off from normal trade in oil for almost ten years, making fuel shortages an almost permanent part of life, with all the economic and other effects of such a situation.

It would therefore have been nice to report that Zimbabwe was pursuing biofuels more aggressively and successfully than other nations. Alas, the biodiesel plant announced with much fanfare last year seems to be yet another white elephant. The main reason? There just isn’t enough raw material being produced in the country, whether cotton, soya bean, jatropha or any other”feed stock.” This is  hardly surprising when the country is failing to produce enough of its staple cereal, maize.

The Standard of November 22 reports that “the country’s first commercial bio-diesel plant, commissioned amid pomp and fanfare last year, is operating at less than five percent capacity. Workers at the gigantic plant in Harare — once touted as the panacea to the country’s perennial — said they were producing “a few hundreds of litres” of diesel and cooking oil a month. They attributed the false start to an acute shortage of Jatropha, cotton seed, sunflower, soya beans and maize to produce diesel and cooking oil.


When standardbusiness visited the plant just before midday on Thursday, the plant with a capacity to produce between 90-100 million litres of diesel annually was silent.

For the past year, we have been using cotton seed for the production of diesel and cooking oil but it has run out,” said a worker speaking on condition that he was not named.  “We can’t use maize or soya beans because there is hunger. People need them for food.”


At least 500 tonnes of seed oil is required annually to produce the targeted 100 million litres of bio-diesel.
It takes between two and three years for a Jatropha seedling to mature.


“We have to wait for the Jatropha seedlings to mature otherwise we are wasting our time,” said another worker.

Sad but utterly predictable. I told you so.


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