Only Zanu PF won in secret talks

‘THERE are no secrets better kept than the secrets everybody guesses,” says Sir George Crofts in the third act of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession. O

ne of the specific secrets the deceptively genteel Irish comic dramatist referred to was Mrs Warren’s profession as the world’s oldest. Sometimes it is hard to keep a secret. As one of America’s most influential founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin said: “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”

In diplomacy however a worn argument in support of secrecy is that well-publicised negotiations tend to become hostage to the very conflict they are trying to solve, hence the insistence by diplomats that the best results in conflict resolution are achieved through secret negotiations.

It is without doubt that secrecy is an integral part of diplomacy and governance. We are familiar with the tendency to over-regulate which has really never been beneficial. Excessive secrecy has significant consequences for the national interest when, as a result, stakeholders are not fully informed, government is not held accountable for its actions, and the public cannot engage in informed debate.

By the same token, it is true that secrecy is vital to save lives, bring miscreants to justice, protect national security, and engage in effective diplomacy. Yet the best way to ensure that secrecy is respected, and that the most important secrets remain secret, is for secrecy to be limited to its necessary role. Secrets can be protected more effectively if secrecy is reduced overall. Negotiators in the now-flopped South African-mediated dialogue to solve Zimbabwe’s political logjam stretched their luck too far when they substituted effective diplomacy with too much secrecy.

The negotiators Tendai Biti and Welshman Ncube from the divided MDC and Nicholas Goche and Patrick Chinamasa of Zanu PF were sworn to secrecy at the start of the talks. They believed that they could contribute to the Thabo Mbeki-led process without necessarily telling the whole nation what they were up to. So the negotiators did not take kindly to the Zimbabwe Independent making revelations about the content and scope of the dialogue.

The negotiators regarded our coverage of the talks as a threat to the process. There were attempts to gag the paper through crude diplomacy, that almost amounted to threats to staffers. Civic groups that attempted to impose themselves on to the processes were shut out. This was a deal between the MDC and Zanu PF. The parties believed they were representing the national interest.

Despite attempts to put a lid on proceedings, information still came out in large torrents. We knew what the two parties were up to and last September we pointed out the direction the talks were likely to take — that Zanu PF would not agree to a new constitution, that President Mugabe wanted to die in office and that he wanted an election in March.

We revealed details on the 18th amendment, Posa and Aippa. There was too much information around to keep under wraps. Put simply, details of a proper deal to settle a national crisis cannot be kept away from stakeholders. It has never worked. United States jurist Justice Potter Stewart in a legal opinion in the Pentagon Papers case opined: “when everything is secret, nothing is secret”.

Details of the dialogue became a public secret but because the negotiators, especially in the MDC, refused to share what they were agreeing to even with those of their own kind, Mbeki’s negotiated processes lacked national ownership. The evidence of this came out when Mugabe thumbed his nose at MDC’s calls for a transitional constitution before the elections. There was no popular outcry because the public had not really called for that.

The MDC, which believed it had Mugabe on tenterhooks through the dialogue, misread the usefulness of secrecy in dialogue. They naively believed everything said to them across the negotiating table but did not appear to know the grand Zanu PF plan of using the dialogue to seek legitimacy for Mugabe. We last year repeatedly warned the MDC that President Mugabe was not going to legislate himself out of office and that it was important for the opposition to have a plan B in the event of the talks collapsing.

To Zanu PF, the talks have been a huge success. The ruling party has achieved all it wanted and, more importantly, the achievements have the MDC’s seal of approval.

The MDC on the other hand is still dazzled by Mugabe’s call for an election next month and his rejection of a new constitution. They are now seeking popular support to fight for these from a populace that was shunted out of the process at the onset of the dialogue. We question what the quest for secrecy achieved other than putting a veil over Zanu PF’s sinister plan?

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