PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe got such a raw deal in Nigeria where he was not only stripped of his security protection leaving him vulnerable to pressure and harassment by the country’s journalists, but was also denied salutation as an elderly African statesman and current African Union chairperson that he stormed out of the country to nearby Equatorial Guinea, fresh details show.
Mugabe is a good friend of Equatorial Guinea’s authoritarian ruler Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. His relationship with Nigeria has in recent years been frosty.
Despite occurring almost a month ago, the matter is still the subject of debate in government while tension between Zimbabwe and Nigeria has persisted over the issue.
Senior government officials said this week that the already chilly relations between Zimbabwe and Nigeria have hit a new low, as Mugabe is still fuming over the manner the Nigerian government treated him when he attended President Muhammadu Buhari’s inauguration in Abuja on May 29.
Mugabe reportedly engaged Buhari over the matter when they met at the African Union summit in South Africa a fortnight ago in an effort to resolve the fallout, but the sour taste in his mouth remains.
Officials say Mugabe’s security team met hostility from the hosts even before Mugabe left for Nigeria at short notice to his delegation.
As per the norm, an advance team was sent to Nigeria at short notice to assess the security situation and also formally engage the host nation’s security and foreign affairs officials on protocol and safety matters.
Officials say Mugabe’s advance team and Nigerian officials were supposed to agree on protocol and security arrangements, with the host nation’s intelligence services taking the leading role as they were more familiar with the situation in their country.
Nigerian officials, however, shocked the Zimbabwean delegation when they insisted on trimming Mugabe’s security by only allowing him to be accompanied by his aide de camp and chief of protocol.
“Nigeria gave Mugabe a raw deal. Its authorities insisted that Mugabe and other Heads of State would go to the inauguration venue in a bus with one security detail, in this case a senior security aide named Lifa. Mugabe initially agreed to the arrangement, but Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) director-general Happyton Bonyongwe and Director of Security Albert Ngulube resisted the arrangement arguing their boss’s security would be compromised by the arrangement even if they could not anticipate the incident with journalists,” one senior government official told the Zimbabwe Independent this week.
“Mugabe’s delegation and indeed himself also felt that as the sitting African Union chairperson and a senior African statesman he was not acknowledged and given salutation at the inauguration, raising questions about the host’s attitude.”
Although Mugabe was eventually given an official vehicle by the Nigerian government and allowed one security officer, government officials say frustrated CIO bosses had to hire a vehicle after being accredited as officials rather than security officers. The rest of Mugabe’s security team and government officials remained holed up in their hotel rooms as they were barred from accompanying him to the inauguration venue where he was eventually besieged by journalists.
Officials say Mugabe was, however, particularly angered by what he perceived as political and diplomatic hostility towards him by Nigerians, believing his hosts were “ignoring, overlooking or deliberately refusing” to recognise him as the AU chairman.
“He left the inauguration disappointed and angry about the situation and consequently instead of staying in Nigeria to fly out from there to Sudan for the inauguration of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir as planned, he stormed out of Abuja and flew to Equatorial Guinea to sleep there,” another government official said.
Mugabe’s encounter with Nigerian journalists left state security service chiefs, including Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Constantine Chiwenga, fuming over what they perceived to be security lapses, piling pressure, particularly on Bonyongwe whom they removed although protocol officials say it was the hosts’s fault.
Chiwenga recently met Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa to discuss what was perceived to be inadequacies exhibited by Zimbabwe’s security team amid indications that the Zanu PF faction loyal to Mnangagwa was now using the encounter to escalate their push for security sector changes.
In some circles, Mugabe’s treatment in Nigeria is seen as confirming his loss of reputation and prestige on the African continent, especially among the younger generation of leaders, and Nigerians in particular.
Although Nigeria helped Zimbabwe to attain independence by supporting Zanu during the liberation war and even assisted government with US$5 million to acquire Zimpapers in 1980 from South Africa’s Argus Media Group, relations between the two countries have dipped over the years.
One of the major turning points came during Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidency. Obasanjo was part of a troika of Commonwealth leaders, including then South African president Thabo Mbeki and ex-Australian prime minister John Howard, who suspended Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth for a year in March 2002 following its controversial elections that year.
Commonwealth observers had found the elections which returned Mugabe to power to be seriously flawed as they were “marred by a high-level of politically motivated violence”, while conditions did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electorate.
Zimbabwe’s relations with Nigeria further plunged when Obasanjo barred Mugabe from attending the Commonwealth meeting in Abuja in December 2003 after British Prime Minister Tony Blair threatened to boycott if he attended.
Mugabe subsequently pulled Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth, protesting that the country was not being treated as an equal, while Obasanjo quit his role in Zimbabwe.
Relations between the two countries took a further knock in 2011 when Nigeria, together with South Africa and Gabon, voted in favour of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which authorised military action against the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Mugabe’s close friend who was later killed.
Since then Mugabe has consistently criticised Nigeria, South Africa and Gabon for allegedly betraying Africa. He repeated his statements at the AU summit two weeks ago. In March last year, Mugabe said Nigerian citizens were corrupt, torching a diplomatic storm with the Nigerian government.