PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe and his delegation’s ill-fated trip to the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) summit in Lesotho last week confirmed Zimbabwe is now considered a trouble spot in the region, in the same league as anachronistic states
such as Swaziland.
The summit also showed clearly that Mugabe has lately lost credibility and influence, not just in the eyes of his critics, but also before those of hitherto supportive Sadc counterparts whom he always touted as allies against hostile Western leaders.
Reports from Maseru, Lesotho’s capital where the summit was held, said Mugabe left in a huff on Friday after a special session on Zimbabwe and Swaziland in which the two countries were described by Sadc leaders as barriers to regional economic integration, investment and progress.
Although Foreign minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi and state media journalists afterwards tried to do some damage-limitation to obscure Mugabe’s disastrous showing in Lesotho, remarks by his hosts revealed that Zimbabwe and Swaziland, Africa’s last remaining absolute monarchy, were viewed as obstacles to economic progress in the region.
Despite Mumbengegwi’s claims that Zimbabwe was not discussed, Lesotho Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili said it was debated during a special session on Friday which Mugabe did not see through to its conclusion.
“The situation in that country is of concern to Sadc precisely because Zimbabwe was the second strongest economy in the community and for its economy to have declined to (these) levels is of major concern to us,” Mosisili told a press conference at the close of the summit.
“We have been engaged with the leadership of Zimbabwe on how best we can recover the economic viability of that country. There has been progress.”
Prior to that, Lesotho’s Finance minister Timothy Thahane had said crisis-ridden Zimbabwe and Swaziland, which are accused of human rights abuses, would be discussed at the close of the summit. This was in view of the fact that problems in Zimbabwe have forced millions of locals to flee across borders, mostly to South Africa, Botswana and also overseas as economic refugees.
“There will be a special session at the close of the summit to discuss what’s going on … specifically in Zimbabwe and Swaziland,” he said.
Thahane, who is head of the Sadc Council of Ministers, said the issue of former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa’s mediation in the Zimbabwe crisis was not on the agenda, although it might be tabled in the closed session.
Sources in Harare had indicated that Mugabe’s delegation would be seeking Sadc’s support for Mkapa to become the official envoy of the regional body on the Zimbabwe issue. This did not happen.
In view of this, the damage-control efforts and deafening silence from the Zimbabwean delegation on the outcome of the summit reveal the Lesotho mission was botched. Zimbabwe clearly wanted to avoid being tabled as an issue at the summit while pushing through the Mkapa plan but failed in both cases.
This — as demonstrated by Mugabe’s unceremonious departure — made the trip to Maseru a disastrous diplomatic expedition. This was made worse by preceding events and Mugabe’s hide-and-seek game with Kofi Annan.
After the African Union summit in Banjul, Mugabe claimed Mkapa had agreed to mediate in the local crisis and was endorsed by the AU and United Nations secretary-general. Mugabe also said Annan had agreed with him in a meeting in Banjul that the problem was a bilateral dispute over land reform between Harare and London. He alleged that Mkapa would now be trying to resolve this with Britain.
However, most of Mugabe’s claims started collapsing soon after the AU summit. Firstly, Britain dismissed Mugabe’s remarks about a bilateral dispute between London and Harare as a distraction. The British said the problem was internal and should be resolved by Zimbabweans. They said as a result there would be no meeting between Mugabe and Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss the alleged dispute.
Mugabe has been campaigning for a meeting with Blair even though he claimed after last year’s general election that his party’s victory was a defeat for Blair and Britain because they allegedly wanted to oust his regime.
British ambassador Andrew Pocock said last week there was no need for Mkapa to act as a mediator. “What we need is a change of policies by government,” he was quoted as saying.
For Britain, therefore, the Mkapa initiative was dead in the water from the start.
Secondly, Annan denied that he had agreed with Mugabe the problem in Zimbabwe was a bilateral dispute between the two countries. Annan also said he was not aware that Mkapa would be trying to resolve the alleged problem.
And now it has emerged that Mkapa did not agree to mediate.
Well-sourced information shows that Mkapa did not accept the mediation role and was actually angered by reports that he had agreed to play that role.
Diplomats who were present in Maseru said Sadc leaders were alarmed to discover that Harare wanted them to endorse the fiction that Mkapa was now the mediator between Zimbabwe and Britain over a bilateral dispute which only Harare can see.
While Zimbabwe and Swaziland clearly wanted to avoid special attention — for all the wrong reasons — regional leaders put them under the spotlight, forcing Mugabe to head home in frustration.
Official explanations for Mugabe’s controversial departure ranged from purported concerns about the need to fly out during daylight because the Maseru airport was difficult to navigate in darkness to some undeclared “compelling reasons”.
But observers who attended the summit said Mugabe’s furious departure — which is unprecedented since he started attending Sadc meetings in 1980 — was triggered by forthright discussions of Zimbabwe and Swaziland.
They said Mugabe had attended Sadc meetings in Lesotho before but had not behaved the same way, showing last week’s focus on the attention-grabbing Zimbabwean political and economic crisis — widely blamed on his leadership and policy failures — had infuriated him.
Mugabe has always sought to avoid debate on Zimbabwe at such forums. A senior diplomat said Harare usually sends an advance team of key officials on fire-fighting missions before Sadc summits to ensure that the country is not on the agenda.
“When there were still ministers like Jonathan Moyo what used to happen was that the government would start well ahead of the summit to use the state media to influence public opinion and the agenda of the meeting,” a government official said. “Moyo and company would go ahead to fight to remove Zimbabwe from the agenda, but now such kind of officials are no longer there and as a result Zimbabwe is now a subject of controversy at every Sadc meeting.”
Zimbabwe has been on the Sadc agenda as a trouble spot since 2001 when regional leaders agreed in Blantyre to form a troika comprising South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique to deal with its crisis. In 2002 Zimbabwe was denied the opportunity to host the 2003 summit which was eventually hosted by Tanzania.
In 2004 Zimbabwe was a major issue in Mauritius. Last year there were attempts at the summit in Botswana to make former Mozambican president Joachim Chissano an AU envoy on the Zimbabwe issue. Mugabe blocked the move.
Last week Zimbabwe again became a thorny issue in Maseru. The same is likely to happen at future summits until the crisis is resolved.
At the end of the Maseru summit, all but four Sadc heads of state signed a Finance and Investment Protocol, which aims to transform the region into one that “is able to do business within itself and with the rest of the world” through the harmonisation of tax and banking laws.
Along with leaders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana and Angola, Mugabe did not sign the agreement and sources said he was angered by the mention of his country as a stumbling block to investment.
While Zimbabwe continues reeling from an economic meltdown, neighbouring states are enjoying significant growth rates and prosperity.