That is one reason why I went to the meeting of the African chapter in Tanzania last week, but I did not expect to be embraced by President Robert Mugabe.
He had not been invited, but happened to be in Dar es Salaam and got through the door. Klaus Schwab, who runs the organisation, pointed out that he was the first head of state to come to Davos. As his Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, were there, Schwab decided to have all three on the platform.
Avoiding his usual rant, Mugabe was in mischievous mood. He opened by introducing “the threesome who are running the country at the moment — young, younger and youngest”. It got a huge laugh and from then on the old crocodile joked and teased, mocked and lectured until the audience — at
least the African part — were almost on their feet with delight. He gave us a laid-back, more-in-sorrow-than-anger history lesson, heavy in irony (though light on reality) and all of it stuck in the “struggle” mentality of the 1970s. But alongside Tsvangirai and Mutambara, it was like watching a top-class premier league striker dancing round a third division defence.
During questions I asked Mugabe about the American and EU-targeted sanctions against him and members of his family and regime. They seemed to worry Mugabe a lot, but not the investors considering returning to Zimbabwe. It was by no means the first time that I had met Mugabe. I first
interviewed him in 1976 and have met him four or five times since, but I was still astounded by what happened next. As he swept out with his entourage after the meeting, he spotted me and came over. He clasped my hand in both of his and held them tightly. “I am tired of this war with Britain,” he said with a simple smile. “How can we end it?”
Knowing how Mugabe is regarded by most people in Britain, the image of a bottle of whisky and a revolver came to mind but, catching my breath, I asked what he thought the core of the problem was. Could it have been the much rumoured secret land deal believed to have been agreed at the Lancaster House conference of 1979 that led to an independent Zimbabwe?
“No,” he said. “It was Blair.”
He explained that British funding for land reform agreed at Lancaster House had ceased in the 1990s but that John Major, British Prime Minister then, had sent a team to work out a new plan, which had been agreed. Then Major lost power and when Mugabe met his successor Tony Blair at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Summit in 1997 to follow it up, they fell out. “Blair repudiated us,” he said. “Labour never understood us.”
But Mugabe’s fury with Britain and the unleashing of violence against white farmers in Zimbabwe is about far more than funding land reform or even politics. He had laws in place to take the land peacefully. All he needed was a legal instrument to effect the takeover. He could have given the farmers notice to quit. Instead he chose to take the farms by force. He wanted violent confrontation with Britain.
I believe the key lies in the small, lonely, bright child whose father left home when he was 10. Mugabe was brought up by a fanatically Roman Catholic mother and practically adopted by a missionary priest and nuns at a Catholic mission. He owed his early education to them. They were the pull.
Other whites — and the injustices of colonial rule — gave him the push. His relationship with Britain and white people reaches the extremes of love and hate.
No sooner had he told me of his rejection by Blair than he was telling me, as he tells everyone, how much he respects the Queen and the Royal Family. He also had an extraordinarily close relation with Lord Soames, the Governor who brought Zimbabwe to Independence and whom Mugabe asked to stay on. He loves cricket and respects many other aspects of Britain.
What I hear is: “Mummy, the Queen loves me. Daddy, the British Government, Blair, rejects me. But I’ll show him. I’ll tear the house down.” And he did.
The explanation is psychological, not political, but I do not see Mugabe as mad or evil. To me he is a Macbeth-like figure, a warrior who fought for his country and started well, but then began to diminish into a ruler.
How will it end? What if, seeing Burnham Wood coming towards Dunsinane Castle, instead of shouting: “Arm, arm and out,” Macbeth had said: “I’m tired of this war”? I got the impression that, at the age of 86, he genuinely is.
If, like Libyan President Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Mugabe had oil and threatened to go nuclear, there would, presumably, be swift negotiations. But Zimbabwe itself is of little importance to Britain and Mugabe is a far greater hate figure than Gaddafi. So it is hard to see how his pro-British half could be
rewarded with reconciliation until he announces the creation of a new constitution, allows a free and peaceful election and steps down if he loses it. But, whatever the British position, I think he is ready for the conversation.
Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. — www.timesonline.co.uk
By Richard Dowden