Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Harare Losing Key Allies

With Libya and now, seemingly, China cooling off Zimbabwe, some say Mugabe’s remaining friends are purely of sentimental value.
By Mike Nyoni
Dwindling state visits to Zimbabwe reflect President Robert Mugabe’s increasing isolation from the rest of the world.

So last week’s visit by Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo came as a welcome diversion for the elderly president, who showed his guest around the capital Harare with great enthusiasm.

Officially, Obiang came to open Zimbabawe’s once vibrant agricultural show, but observers say the visit had more to do with Obiang’s bid to extradite alleged coup plotter Simon Mann to Equatorial Guinea to face trial for the foiled coup against Obiang’s government.

Mann is currently in jail in Zimbabwe, but it is believed he may be “traded” to oil-rich Equatorial Guinea in return for some much-needed fuel for Zimbabwe.

But just as Obiang flew out on August 31, Mugabe was brought down to earth with the shock that his closest ally China had made a policy u-turn on Zimbabwe. Britain’s Foreign Office minister Mark Malloch-Brown told reporters on an official visit to China on August 30 that he had been assured by his hosts that they would apply more pressure on “rogue states”.

“I was told that Chinese assistance to Zimbabwe was now limited to humanitarian assistance, which is enormously important,” said Malloch-Brown.

This must come as a major blow to Mugabe who has trumpeted his so-called “Look East Policy” as a counter to what he sees as undue interference in Zimbabwe’s affairs by western countries, which have imposed “targeted sanctions” on Mugabe and his senior party and government officials.

Mugabe received another rebuff last week by one of his fiercest critics Australia, which revoked study permits for eight children of government officials, including Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono’s three children studying in that country.

There have been very few state visits to Harare since the country launched its controversial land reform programme in 2000, which was accompanied by violence and human rights violations. This led to worldwide condemnation, culminating in the country’s current isolation.

Mugabe’s decision to leave the Commonwealth of former British colonies in 2003 all but completed the country’s isolation from the international community - except for countries in the Southern African region.

What visits have occurred have been limited to official, one-day events by regional leaders to see how Zimbabwe can be plucked out of what many see as a man-made humanitarian crisis. So Obiang’s three-day state visit must have come as something of a relief to Mugabe who is desperate to show that he still has friends besides those in the Southern African Development Community, SADC.

The visit saw delegates from Equatorial Guinea whisked in a large cavalcade up to the resort town of Victoria Falls, about 800 kilometres by road from Harare, in a country in the grip of a fuel shortage. There was very little official information about the purpose of Obiang’s visit and most of the meetings were held behind closed doors.

Outside State House and the capital, Mugabe took Obiang on a tour of family projects in his rural Zvimba district in Mashonaland West province, including his Gushungo Farm, a livestock enterprise, where most of the stock was to be displayed at the agricultural show as a demonstration of black economic empowerment. Obiang was later taken to First Lady Grace Mugabe’s brother Reward Marufu’s farm in the same district.

The touring party ended with a stately dinner hosted by the First Lady herself at Iron Mask farm just outside the capital, which was seized from an elderly white couple at the height of the land reform programme.

At the time, Grace Mugabe claimed she wanted the property to set up a home for orphans and other displaced children from Harare’s streets. Work on the project is only beginning now with the help of the Chinese.

But perhaps the party also ended too soon for Mugabe’s troubled regime, for Obiang’s red-carpet, 21-gun salute reception at Harare airport ended without much ceremony on his departure.

Outside the SADC, one can count Mugabe’s friends on one hand, namely China, Cuba and Vietnam. Relations with Israel have been the most ambivalent, with Zimbabwe always expressing support for the Palestinians but sourcing its instruments of repression such as teargas, water cannons and other anti-riot materials from the Jewish state.

Of late, Mugabe has also been getting solidarity messages from another populist leader, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Although he enjoys a lot of support in the region, Mugabe rarely pays visits except to attend official occasions like SADC or African Union summits. He doesn’t get visitors of note either, except a few envoys delivering “special messages” from their leaders - a rather sad commentary on someone who wants to portray himself as a champion of the poor across the third world.

According to a senior editor of an independent newspaper in Zimbabwe, China’s latest policy pronouncement will be the most painful to Mugabe after losing another friend in Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

“The only friends who really made a difference to Mugabe were Gaddafi and [Chinese president] Hu Jintao because they offered material support: Gaddafi with fuel and Hu militarily and in the construction of infrastructure such as roads,” said the editor.

In 2001, Zimbabwe and Libya signed a deal in which Zimbabwe was to supply 15000 tonnes of beef per year to Libya in return for oil. But the deal fell through when Zimbabwe failed to deliver because of the disruption wrought on the beef industry by the farm invasions, which began in 2000. Libya then allowed Zimbabwe to pay for fuel imports in local currency but when the Zimbabwean currency plummeted in value Libya scrapped the deal.

“Gaddafi is now a friend of the West after debilitating sanctions almost crippled Libya’s economy. Any Gaddafi liaison with Mugabe now seems aimed at convincing him to follow his example of softening his stance against the West,” continued the editor.

He cited former British premier Tony Blair’s valedictory visit to Tripoli as telling. Mugabe went there soon afterwards but reports say he returned empty-handed.

“China’s policy u-turn means the end of the much-touted ‘Look East Policy’,” said a Harare civil servant working in the ministry of foreign affairs, adding that China was the most important trading partner in the Far East.

According to the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, Mugabe ordered 12 FC-1 fighter jets and 100 military vehicles from China in a deal in 2004 worth 200 million US dollars.

In 2000, China reportedly swapped a shipment of small arms for eight tonnes of Zimbabwean elephant ivory. It provided a radio jamming device to Zimbabwe that allows Mugabe's regime to block broadcasts of independent news sources like Radio Africa. And also donated the blue tiles that decorate the roof of Mugabe's house.

The civil servant also pointed out that without China’s backing, the Zimbabwean crisis would now be discussed in the United Nations Security Council, “China has been using its veto to block the discussion of the Zimbabwe crisis. World attention will now be refocused on Zimbabwe. We would expect a UN resolution on Zimbabwe in due course. Without Libya and China, Mugabe’s remaining friends are now purely of sentimental value.”

The Chinese embassy in Harare issued a statement on September 4 denying any policy u-turn and citing ongoing projects as evidence of continued collaboration. However, analysts attributed this to “diplomatic double speak” and said the embassy statement referred to the policy of the Chinese Communist Party and not the government, which Malloch Brown was referring to.

Mike Nyoni is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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