Time to talk
I have read with much interest an opinion piece by Michael Holman, the respected British journalist and former Africa editor of the London Financial Times, in its May 29 edition. The piece titled, Time for Britain to start talking to Mugabe, in my view, exposed the British establishment’s know-it-all, paternalistic attitude towards Africa. According to Holman, ‘The combination of advancing years and poor health are taking their toll on the 87-year-old despot. As mortality catches up with Zimbabwe’s president, so an opportunity should be opening for Britain to re-engage with its former colony.’
He goes on: ‘If ever there were a time for constructive external advice, it is now.
Yet rather than encouraging contact, London appears to have ordered its embassy in Harare to do little more than keep a diplomatic death watch, as if Mr Mugabe’s demise will mark the removal of the obstacle on the country’s road to peace and democracy. Maybe. But there is also a case for fearing that his death will be a catalyst for violence.’
Holman’s argument is premised on his thesis that ‘expectations of his imminent passing have created a febrile atmosphere in the ranks of his Zanu-PF party, which shares power in an uneasy coalition. Far from seeking to restore honest governance, Mr Mugabe’s would-be successors plot and scheme, seeking ways to protect vested interests.’ That could be true, for politics is full of intrigues.
He believes also that ‘on the other side of the political divide, opponents anticipate revenge for those who lost their lives at the hands of state-sanctioned thugs and mourn the hundreds of thousands who died as a result of hunger and disease, brought about by gross mismanagement.’
But what Holman and the western media fail to, or are reluctant to openly admit, is that those who died from hunger and disease were indirect victims of the sanctions imposed by the west on Zimbabwe for attempting to right a colonial injustice. I also believe that invoking memories of the bitter past by his reference to the ‘army’s slaughter of some 20,000 civilians in the southern province of Matabeleland in the early 1980s’ does not serve any useful purpose. How certain is he that the people of Matabeleland would seek retribution and ‘exacerbate ethnic tensions between the country’s Shona majority and the Ndebele,’? This is a classic case of stoking ethnic rivalries – something that Africa does not need in these times.
I agree, however, with Holman’s urge for the need to ease tensions and encourage contacts that go beyond the formal and official and break a deadlock. However, for the British government to resist all attempts at direct diplomatic engagement with Harare indicates an intransigence that defies comprehension. Holman demonstrates his bewilderment at the British attitude with a reference to how Whitehall treated the racist Ian Smith regime.
He said: ‘This London-knows-best attitude contrasts starkly with the treatment of the white minority regime of Ian Smith, which issued a unilateral declaration of independence in 1965. This act of defiance led to a guerrilla war, which ended with an independence constitution negotiated at London’s Lancaster House in 1979.
‘During these years, scarcely a month went by without a diplomatic initiative of one sort or another, in which the way had been paved by a succession of intermediaries and honest brokers.
‘Today, the need for reconciliation is almost as urgent. The agenda might include the merit of an amnesty for those who admit and repent their political and economic crimes, for example; or urging the Commonwealth to play a greater role; or seeking the support of the governments of Mozambique and Zambia to provide land for the resettlement of Zimbabwe’s commercial farmers. Far from keeping a distance from such discussions, Britain should be active in promoting them – not just biding time until the passing of Zimbabwe’s leader. The experience of Lancaster House should be kept in mind. Three decades later, it is time that talking began again.’
My question is, why is the current British government adopting the attitude of the previous Labour government and abdicating it obligations to Zimbabwe? After all, the land issue that has triggered Zimbabwe’s current economic and political problems was a major plank of the Lancaster House Agreement, which ushered in the Zimbabwe’s independence in April 1980.
The British government, under the Agreement, was to grant funds for land acquisition and redistribution for 10 years for land acquired on a willing-buyer-willing-seller basis. More than 10 years after independence, land distribution remained highly skewed. White commercial farmers controlled 29 per cent of the total land area, located mainly in the areas of highest agricultural potential, while more than one million black families remained in the overcrowded communal areas on 42 per cent of the land area, located mainly in areas of poor agricultural potential.
The British are reputed to have a sense of fairness. And while I am not an apologist for the commissions or omissions of the Mugabe regime, I believe he deserves a fair hearing. Zimbabwe is not endowed with oil reserves to warrant an armed invasion. It used to be the breadbasket of the sub-region and all diplomatic efforts must be made to restore it to its former glory. After all, a hungry man is an angry man.