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Editor’s Memo

Bridge in the air

Vincent Kahiya

UNITED Nations Development Programme resident representative Victor Angelo is leaving Zimbabwe this weekend after a tumultuous tour of duty during whi

ch he was vilified at every turn by an ungrateful host.

His stay in Zimbabwe should be a case study on the application of United Nations diplomacy on rogue regimes presiding over a poverty-stricken population. The Portuguese-born diplomat soon found himself in a perplexing position and he had to tread with caution.

His critics in government said he was bungling because of his interaction with Western donors, NGOs and dispossessed white commercial farmers. Then there were muffled rebukes by diplomats who believed Angelo was cosying up to government and mobilising humanitarian assistance to prop a Zanu PF regime.

Government accused Angelo this year of “exporting white farmers” it had expelled from the land and arranging funding for their relocation. Angelo, government said, should have pre-occupied himself with mobilising resources for its new farmers.

He came to Zimbabwe when a crisis was unfolding and he is leaving before the curtain comes down on Zimbabwe’s comedy of errors.

He came to Zimbabwe in 2000 when government was decimating commercial agriculture with its fast track resettlement exercise. His office was expected to help Zimbabwe secure funding for agricultural reform. The international community expected the United Nations, through the UNDP office in Harare, to come up with workable resettlement models in place of the haphazard fast track.

The UNDP office in Harare tried to be helpful. Towards the end of 2000 UNDP administrator Mark Malloch Brown came to Zimbabwe to discuss the land reform programme with government. He said the UNDP was prepared to provide Zimbabwe with technical assistance, but government would also have to allay donors’ concerns about law and order in the country.

The government promised to co-operate. At the same time Zimbabwe ran cap in hand to the UNDP to beg for humanitarian assistance as the chaotic land grab began to rear its ugly head. Foreign Affairs minister Stan Mudenge in an interview with Ziana summed up the difficult task newly arrived Angelo had to deal with in Zimbabwe.

“In my letter I indicated that great need had arisen from the fact that people were resettled quickly on the land and we would need assistance and help of the UN agencies because of the… heavy rains with the risk of malaria and the fact that there are no clinics, no educational facilities and no clean water.”

The government expected the international community to come in and repair the damage wrought by a rush of blood to President Mugabe’s head. This would be Angelo’s pre-occupation for the next four years in Harare. He had to sate government’s quest to avert a humanitarian crisis while at the same time addressing the concerns of Western donors who were complaining loudly about the expropriation of productive commercial farmland.

Donor countries with offices in Harare were looking to the UNDP to talk Mugabe’s government into implementing a less destructive agrarian reform. At meetings with the UNDP they put forward their terms, which could not be met as relations continued to deteriorate.

A UN technical team came to Zimbabwe in 2001 to study the situation and recommend an acceptable agrarian reform. It produced a report which did not fit in the fast track template. That route was abandoned.

Efforts to broker a deal between the government and donors were quickly superseded by an even bigger problem – Zimbabwe required humanitarian assistance after the poor harvest of 2001 and the drought of 2002.

Angelo became co-ordinator of that humanitarian effort. Thousands of tonnes of food were shipped in and distributed through NGOs and the World Food Programme. This was not without acrimony as politics of the stomach were a key campaign tool in the 2002 presidential election.

There were allegations that the government wanted to control the distribution of food. This was vehemently denied but there were weekly reports of interference. In October 2002, the World Food Programme suspended food distribution in Insiza after Zanu PF officials seized food from aid workers.

Angelo nevertheless leaves the country with his head high after successfully mobilising international humanitarian support for Zimbabwe. Angelo, who is taking up a new post in Sierra Leone, captured his stay in Zimbabwe with this soundbite: “I was trying to build a bridge which failed to touch the two banks.” Building bridges in the air?

At a farewell luncheon attended by diplomats and government officials last week, a senior diplomat thought Angelo was too balanced – meaning he should have leaned more to one side. His bridge could then have touched one bank but whoever tried to cross it would end up in the water. The raging river is yet to be forded.

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