Bush visit sees welcome consensus on Zim


eorge W Bush leaves Africa this weekend hopefully better informed about the myriad problems the continent faces. He cannot be accused of lacking enthusiasm. He has committed his government to billions of US dollars in aid and trade which far exceeds anything the Clinton administration attempted.

And as well as promoting a now-familiar US agenda on governance, he listened to what other leaders had to say. In particular he built on ties already forged at past meetings with South African president Thabo Mbeki.

Of interest to us was of course their talks on Zimbabwe. Even before his arrival on Tuesday, Bush was signalling his preparedness to defer to Mbeki, on the grounds that Zimbabwe’s powerful neighbour stood a better chance of success in prodding the obdurate Robert Mugabe from an office he shouldn’t be occupying.

The two leaders pronounced they were “absolutely of one mind on Zimbabwe”, a declaration that must have caused some unease in Harare. While Mbeki appears to have given Bush the same questionable assurances on Zimbabwe that he has been giving other heads of government including Britain’s Tony Blair, there does appear to be an identity of views on the need to make progress in resolving the spiralling crisis here that has consequences for the region and Nepad.

Bush said that Mbeki, who he described as “point man on this subject”, believed he was making “good progress” on change. This included the claim that Zanu PF and the MDC were engaged in dialogue to solve Zimbabwe’s problems.

Morgan Tsvangirai called this “false and mischievous”. In truth, as Paul Themba Nyathi subsequently confirmed, talks-about-talks have been held. But these don’t amount to formal negotiations.

Mbeki told Blair during their meeting at Chequers at the beginning of last year that Mugabe’s government was prepared to repeal security and media legislation that offended democratic norms. He repeated these assurances to business leaders in Midrand later in the year.

Despite strenuous denials by Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa that Zimbabwe had any intention of repealing Posa, Mbeki continues to insist that legislative changes are on their way. Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano appears to have been told the same thing.

Now the Americans are dangling a package of international assistance to a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe which they hope will provide an inducement to Mbeki to translate his wish list into something more practical while at the same time cushioning South Africa from some of the Zimbabwe fallout.

The talks in Pretoria would appear to provide a welcome consensus. There was no reference for instance by Mbeki to land or colonialism, the sort of rhetoric the ANC has recently been sharing with Zanu PF. Instead there now seems to be agreement that this is a governance issue, something Mugabe’s critics have been saying for three years!

But for things to give, Mbeki will have to move beyond the facile argument that “the principal responsibility for the resolution of this problem rests with the people of Zimbabwe”. If the people of Zimbabwe lie bound and gagged, how then are they supposed to free themselves? If Bush missed the opportunity to ask that question, the same one the ANC asked of the international community in the 1980s regarding the plight of South Africans, he will have missed a gaping hole in Mbeki’s rhetorical armour.

He diplomatically accepted Mbe-ki’s assurances on “progress” in Zimbabwe in a week that the International Bar Association denounced attempts by the Mugabe regime to tarnish the reputation and undermine the security of judges. The mayor of Harare has been twice arrested on the instructions of a minister who has a political interest in thwarting his mandate. And a demonstration calling on Mbeki to act on Mugabe’s misrule was suppressed before a petition could be delivered to the US embassy.

We trust Bush is not intent upon ignoring these problems in the interests of diplomacy.

As it is, modest mileage has been made on the way forward and it can now be said a convergence of views is evident between Britain and the US on the one hand, and the South Africans on the other. This will in turn draw in other African states who Mbeki has been careful to consult so he doesn’t end up on Zimbabwe as Nelson Mandela did on Nigeria in 1995 — isolated.

In their talks with MDC officials today, members of the Bush team will learn about the realities of the Zimbabwe situation as distinct from the rhetoric. They will learn that far from the situation improving it has deteriorated and continues to do so by the day. This is a country besieged by its rulers.

African Union heads of state meeting in Maputo have implored the US to intervene in Liberia to prevent further bloodshed there. The departure of President Charles Taylor is the stumbling block. But Zimbabwe is not on their agenda because they are divided on what to do about it.

Let’s hope the situation here doesn’t reach Liberian levels before they can agree on the urgency of addressing the problem!

Bush has faced considerable hostility from civil society during his visit to South Africa. His record on the environment, including abandonment of the Kyoto consensus, breaches of long-held liberties in the internment of individuals suspected of links to Al-Qaeda, the promotion of security legislation that infringes on basic freedoms and encourages other states to do the same, and the frontal assault on the post-1945 international dispensation which the end of multilateralism portends, have all combined to create the impression of a brash gunslinging regime in Washington that disregards the concerns of friends and foes alike.

But bullheaded diplomacy and confrontation with critics do not, as the regime in Harare discovered to its cost, provide a basis for sound relations with the international community.

By reaching out to Africa, addressing its concerns and doing some uncustomary listening, Bush has indicated that post-Iraq America may be turning a new leaf; that there is more to US power than twisting arms.

Let’s hope so.

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