THE Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF), designed to showcase the country’s business, trade and investment initiatives to the world, has been reduced to a stomping ground for dictators, whose countries are either riddled with economic failure, corruption, incompetence or human rights abuses.
BY ANDREW KUNAMBURA
In a dramatic spectacle over the years, controversial and discredited leaders — from tyrants with tattered reputations to those running moribund economies across Africa and beyond — have been invited by government to officially open the country’s premier business expo.
This year the ZITF, now its 60th edition, will be officially opened by Ugandan despot Yoweri Museveni in Bulawayo today.
Museveni arrived in the country yesterday afternoon and was treated to a lavish banquet at State House last night.
Analysts say Harare’s association with tyrants is not helping to revamp its battered image and promote the country as a conducive investment destination.
Commentators say the hosting of Museveni, who has a terrible human rights record and has clung on to power in the East African country for over three decades, was tantamount to scoring an own goal.
Museveni, who has ruled Uganda for 33 years, courted global controversy just early this month when he caused an amendment to the country’s constitution which prevented those under the age of 35 and over 75 to contest presidential elections in a move widely seen as being aimed at prolonging his rule.
Museveni, now 73, would not have been eligible to run again when his current term expires in 2021 in the absence of that controversial amendment.
Last year, Museveni was globally condemned when he caused the detention of rising Ugandan political star Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, a widely loved 36-year-old Afropop musician popularly known as Bobi Wine.
The state’s brutal treatment of Wine, including allegations of torture, prompted days of massive protests in the capital, Kampala, which were violently suppressed by the military with teargas and live ammunition.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government has often exhibited the same traits as it brutally crushed protests in August last year and in January this year.
Last year, Mnangagwa officially opened the trade fair himself.
In a long cast of inept leaders, Namibian President Hage Geingob, who opened ZITF in 2017, is perhaps the only exception and a few others before him.
The 2016 edition of ZITF was officially opened by Togolese President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé, son of the late dictator Gnassingbé Eyadema who ruled the West African country for 38 years before his death in 2005.
Following Eyadéma’s sudden death, Faure Gnassingbé was immediately installed as Togolese president with support from the army.
Doubts regarding the constitutional legitimacy of the succession process led to heavy regional pressure being exerted on Gnassingbé, and he subsequently resigned before winning a controversial presidential election on April 24, 2005.
He has refused to go 14 years on.
The 2015 ZITF edition was officially opened by Zambian President Edgar Lungu, who had then controversially narrowly defeated rival Hakainde Hichilema.
Immediately after the election, Lungu caused Hichilema’s arrest and was charged with treason for allegedly obstructing the president’s motorcade on a main road. He was, however, later acquitted by the courts.
Former president Robert Mugabe — one of Africa’s notorious dictators toppled in a coup by Mnangagwa in 2017 — officially opened ZITF 2014 personally. He had done that many times before.
The 2013 edition of ZITF was opened by former Malawian president Joyce Banda, who was at the time badly tainted by allegations of corruption.
Mugabe invited King Mswati of eSwatini, regarded as the world’s last absolute monarch, to officially open the trade fair in 2011. Under King Mswati, democracy simply does not exist in the renamed kingdom.
The peak of it all, however, would have been the invitation of Iran’s then hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to officially open the ZITF in 2010. Iran was named an “outpost of tyranny” by the United States, among other authoritarian countries.
Equatorial Guinea leader Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo — who ousted and killed his uncle through a military coup in 1979 to seize power — has also stamped the ZITF grounds
Addressing a press conference on Wednesday this week, opposition MDC leader Nelson Chamisa condemned the invitation of Museveni.
“The choice of friends defines the man’s character and we are worried that Mr Mnangagwa invited Mr Museveni at a time when he is terrorising his own opposition. Bobi Wine, my dear friend, is being terrorised.
“He has been arrested several times. We don’t take it lightly whenever dictators come in cahoots or in unison. We have an obligation to fight them,” he said.
Former Education minister David Coltart said: “It is entirely inappropriate for the government to have invited Museveni to open ZITF for a variety of reasons. Firstly the Mnangagwa regime is trying to persuade the world that it is a ‘new dispensation’, committed to respecting democracy; that notion is not advanced by inviting a dictator to open your premier trade show.
“Secondly, Museveni has driven the Ugandan economy into the ground and so he is hardly the best example of a leader who has transformed his country’s economy.”
Political scientist Ibbo Mandaza weighed in, saying: “This is economically unsound and ridiculous. We do not operate in a vacuum and, when a country is destitute like Zimbabwe at the moment, it has to look for progressive friends with the elevant resources, not discredited leaders.”