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.