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Editor’s Memo

Notoriety not popularity, Mr President

By Dumisani Muleya

WHEN it started it used to be funny. A lot of people enjoyed it for comic relief, especially in these hard times. Then it became sad and now it’s a tragedy.

I’m referring to President Robert Mugabe and his ancien regime’s increasingly ridiculous saturation propaganda.

This week following the controversial EU-Africa summit held in Lisbon Mugabe and his hard-to-believe spin-doctors were in action, telling the world they had staged a major diplomatic coup against Britain.

“We defeated the British, we were the victors over the British,” Mugabe pathetically proclaimed, betraying the extreme anxiety of an isolated and cornered leader. “What is Britain after all? They think the empire still runs. The empire is no more, it has collapsed. If the British understood this they would not behave like the imperial power they used to be.”

How did Mugabe defeat Britain when he was told by Portugal, the host, that he was invited but not welcome? At the summit it emerged that when German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticised Mugabe, she had actually been asked by Portugal, which holds the EU presidency, to speak on behalf of the bloc.

If Britain was defeated why was Mugabe despondent, stuck in isolation when he made his “gang of four” remarks against critics. Only the usual suspects from Africa, President Thabo Mbeki and Senegalese leader Abdoulaye Wade, defended him.

Why, we may also ask, was Information minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu angry on behalf of Mugabe, using words like “racist”, “fascist” and “Nazi” to refer to Merkel? That betrays bottled anger, not victory.

If by any stretch of the imagination that is a triumph, then it’s worse than a pyrrhic victory. Zimbabwe is more isolated now than before the summit as French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s remarks (“I didn’t shake his hand”) show.

The problem is Mugabe’s government does not have a consistent official line on issues. When the targeted sanctions were imposed, Mugabe said they were ineffective and, after all, he did not need to worry about them because he did not want to go to freezing-cold countries, but of late he has been bleating that sanctions were hurting the economy.

So what’s it to be Mr President? Do you care or not?

Contradictions are inherent in the policies of a regime which reasons by conclusions. This government first concludes what it is going to do and then looks for a plan or evidence to back it up: self-fulfilling prophecy, usually without success.

To show the desperation, government officials even celebrated Mugabe’s Hollywood-style publicity stunts at the summit. Mugabe’s barely credible spokesmen claimed their leader was swarmed by hordes of stampeding reporters and photographers because of his huge popularity.

Mugabe himself said journalists’ interest in him underlined his reputation at home and abroad.

“All the cameras were focused on me and my neck was almost aching with cameramen asking me to look this way and that way for them to take my photos. That was the interest people had in us. Our popularity comes from your support here at home,” he said

This sounds incredible, especially coming from a head of state unless it was meant to be humorous. If it was humour then it was not particularly funny, but if it was as serious as it almost certainly was, then in that case it was a PR disaster.

It did not seem at all to have occurred to Mugabe that recently his friend, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was also mobbed by the media when he arrived at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, not because he was popular but due to his unsavoury global reputation. However, Ahmadinejad was sharp enough to realise that the journalists were chasing after him, not because of his popularity but notoriety gained over his nuclear enrichment fight with the United States.

Mugabe and his ministers apparently can’t distinguish between notoriety and popularity. Only a demagogue would think jeering and cheering are one and the same thing! Mugabe was hustled by journalists who wanted headline-grabbing stories and pictures from him because Zimbabwe is in the news on account of his disastrous policies. It’s as simple as that in journalism.

However, Mugabe, the self-styled leader of a largely non-existent anti-imperialism crusade in Africa, would have us believe that cameramen followed him because he is a popular leader.

Give us a break, even the most gullible of his followers would not believe this. If Mugabe wanted to measure his popularity in his party he should have allowed delegates to his party congress yesterday to vote via secret ballot for a new Zanu PF leader and he would have been shocked by the results.

While other leaders were discussing trade issues, Mugabe and hangers-on were mesmerised by encounters with the paparazzi.

Their publicity gimmicks would have left a lot of Hollywood stars green with envy. But most people saw through the charade. Mugabe was successfully ring-fenced by his hosts and left high and dry.

The behaviour of government officials after the summit proved one thing, if no other: that this regime is now a monument of failure. No amount of smoke and mirrors in the official press could change that.

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