Mugabe’s regional charm offensive faces hurdles

Owen Gagare

PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe is trying to reclaim waning support in the region as he pushes for an early election which he wants later this year. He is hoping to bounce back from his recent setbacks on the diplomatic front.
The recent visit to Zimbabwe by Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika and comments by Zambian President Michael Sata, who described MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai as a “stooge” of the West, might be an indication that Mugabe is making a comeback on the regional front after Sadc chastised him last year for failing to stop political violence and his reluctance to embrace necessary reforms.

Sata described Tsvangirai’s calls for security and electoral reforms in Zimbabwe as unnecessary. He went further to say he would not block Mugabe from holding early elections, despite current efforts by South African President Jacob Zuma to ensure that electoral and constitutional reforms come first.

With Sata and Mutharika now seemingly in his corner, Mugabe can now also target his sympathisers such as Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba, Mozambican President Armando Guebuza and the DRC President Joseph Kabila for support.

However, political analysts believe the veteran leader still has an uphill battle to convince Sadc leaders to side with him in his decade-long battle with the MDC formations, given they have grown weary after mediating in Zimbabwe’s unending political crisis.

The coming to power of Sata, who shares the same nationalist ideology as Zanu PF, has, however, given Mugabe something to smile about. His predecessors, Rupiah Banda and the late Levy Mwanawasa were sharp critics of Zanu PF and played a crucial role in Sadc adopting a tough stance on Zimbabwe.

Mutharika has always been an admirer of Mugabe as evidenced by his naming of one of the country’s major roads, Midima Road, after Mugabe in 2006. The strained diplomatic relations Malawi is having with Britain have pushed him further into the arms of Mugabe, making him an important ally for a man desperate for friends in the region.

Political analyst Professor Eldred Masunungure believes Sata and Mutharika will be important allies for Mugabe in Sadc as he tries to persuade regional leaders to endorse his calls for early elections.

He said Zanu PF will also bank on the sympathy of the liberation movements in the region as it battles to push through its agenda.

“It’s clear that Zanu PF and Mugabe appear to be winning the diplomatic war in the region,” Masunungure said. “Even if they are not winning they are in the ascendancy. Two thousand and twelve has started well for Zanu PF and badly for the MDC formations, especially MDC-T. Mugabe appears to be repairing the damage that was done in 2011 and this may be a product of intensive diplomatic incursions in Sadc.”

Masunungure added that: “With Zambia, this has been facilitated by the change of political leadership. Sata comes from the same political generation as Mugabe and this has given the president an ally who will side with him in Sadc.”

Mugabe has been desperate for allies in the region after Zuma, the Sadc appointed mediator in the Zimbabwe crisis, took an uncompromising stance against him and convinced other leaders to be hard on the Zanu PF leader.

Sadc leaders last year insisted on an election roadmap, thwarting Mugabe’s bid for early elections. They also called on all parties to put an end to violence.
Mugabe responded by sending his emissaries across the region to present his side of the story ahead of the Sadc Summit which was held in May last year in Windhoek, Namibia, where Zimbabwe was, however, struck off the agenda after Zuma failed to attend as his ANC party was facinglocal government elections.

Mugabe had a meeting with Pohamba before the summit. He had also sent Vice-President John Nkomo to South Africa and Botswana on a fence-mending exercise after his outbursts over the outcome of the Livingstone summit in March last year, which strained relations with other regional leaders.
Masunungure said despite the gains made by Mugabe it will be almost impossible for him to have the sympathy of all Sadc leaders who are now tired of dealing with the never-ending crisis.

“It’s a question of whether he has not exhausted the sympathy of his wartime allies. Zanu PF shares a lot with Angola, Namibia and Mozambique and to some extent South Africa, but after a decade of them trying to mediate and failing largely because of Mugabe’s intransigency, it may have eroded the sympathy they have,” he said.

“It’s a big minus on his side. Most countries in Sadc have reached a threshold where they say enough is enough.”

Masunungure said Mutharika desperately wants tips from Mugabe after being left vulnerable when Britain and other donors withdrew aid to his country following a diplomatic fallout between the two countries.

Relations between Malawi and Britain plummeted last year when Malawi declared British high commissioner Fergusen Cochrane-Dye persona non grata and booted him out of the country after he said in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks Mutharika was becoming “ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism”.

Britain retaliated by expelling Malawi’s high commissioner from London.

The withdrawal of aid saw Malawi’s economy going on a downward spiral as the country depended on donor aid, which was up to 40% of its development budget.

Political commentator Blessing Vava said Mutharika had no choice but to run to Mugabe since they share similar problems.

“In a way he is in the same predicament as Mugabe,” Vava said. “His people are increasingly becoming hostile to him. The West has raised human rights issues and cut funding due to corruption. He has reacted to strikes with a heavy hand and people have died.

“The opposition is becoming stronger because the living conditions of the people are deteriorating every day, civic society is gaining ground in raising human rights violations by the state. He is a desperate man today and he will be desperately trying to hold on to power. He will obviously find solace in Mugabe and Mugabe will obviously be saying to him it’s the West that is fighting you and that’s what he wants to hear at this point.He is an admirer of Mugabe to the extent of naming one of the main roads in Malawi after him.”

Vava, however, said despite the friends he is making, he does not believe Mugabe will divert Sadc from the path they have taken.

Another political analyst Charles Mangongera said while Mugabe was trying to divide Sadc so that he can push his bid for early elections, he was destined to fail with Zuma as his major stumbling block.

“There is no doubt that Mugabe is on a radical diplomatic offensive to convince Sadc and the AU to allow him to call an election,” Mangongera said. “His political strategy is to target countries where he thinks he can re-kindle old friendships as a way of dividing Sadc on the issue of elections,” he said.

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