Comment

No basis for talks with Mugabe

PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe’s wish to build bridges with the British is evaporating with each passing day. The latest setback to talks is the government’s publication of a Mining Bill that will see the state take a non-contrib

utory majority share in mining developments and an eavesdropping measure that overturns constitutional provisions on privacy of communications.

“We need a bridge with the British,” Mugabe told British ambassador Dr Andrew Pocock when he presented his credentials on February 16. “We politicians come and go, but the people are there at all times.”

Indeed, but the record of governance of those politicians determines the welfare of their people. There is not much point asking for international assistance if government policies vitiate such assistance.

As US ambassador Christopher Dell pointed out last year, Zimbabweans are poorer today than their parents were in 1953 despite the billions of dollars poured into the country in development aid.

In fact, Zimbabwean and British officials have been holding low-level talks for some time. But those talks have gone nowhere because Mugabe and his ministers don’t understand the need for policies that improve the lives of their people.

The British government could never justify to parliament or public opinion in the UK a dialogue with Mugabe that results in no change to Zimbabwe’s repressive and unproductive political climate. There has to be a basis for such talks and that basis is clearly political and economic reform. The two are of course inextricably linked. But there is no movement at the top except in the wrong direction.

Every month sees a new measure of repression brought to parliament. In addition to the Interception of Communications Bill, exposed by this newspaper last week, Bills piling up for approval include the ominous Suppression of Foreign and International Terrorism Bill and the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Bill which is designed to tighten existing repressive laws.

Last year a 17th amendment to the constitution withdrew from the courts their role in upholding rights in land-related cases and enabled the regime to withdraw the passports of its critics. A Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act introduced penalties of up to 20 years in prison for publishing “false” information deemed prejudicial to the state.

These measures very clearly abridge constitutional rights to freedom of expression, movement and privacy. The latest round of arrests in Mutare of MDC officials on the basis of a spurious conspiracy demonstrate the growing role of the intelligence service in the country’s politics and the manipulation of the police.

Matching these developments is the continued seizure of farms, many covered by Bilateral Investment Protection and Promotion Agreements, and proposals by the state to take a majority shareholding in mining companies.

These proposals came at the very minute Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono was meeting with the IMF in Washington to present Zimbabwe’s case for assistance. Clearly embarrassed by the latest ministerial clumsiness, he made it clear to the local press that the RBZ was opposed to expropriation of any sort and that indigenisation needed to be carried out “with strict observance of private property rights”.

What is obvious here is that a small coterie around the president is busy sabotaging economic reform or any initiative designed to rehabilitate Zimbabwe in the international community.

Gono will make no headway in Washington in these circumstances. And he has been told this. It is also no secret that Zimbabwe’s friends in the EU are finding it increasingly difficult to mount any meaningful opposition to the renewal of sanctions every year given the complete lack of progress on the ground.

Mugabe and his ministers appear unable to see this. They respond to the challenge by turning the screws. This will only compound the country’s rogue status and growing isolation.

Even President Thabo Mbeki has washed his hands of the problem. And Tony Blair is unlikely to choose this moment of his career to take on another international problem!

There will be no talks with Mugabe because there is no basis for those talks. Blair needs an unproductive dialogue with Harare like he needs a hole in the head. It isn’t going to happen and the sooner that is spelt out to Mugabe and his officials the better.

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