What did the new British ambassador to Zimbabwe tell Mugabe to make him giggle like an infatuated schoolboy?

Sep 10, 2011

After years of bad blood and counter accusations of ill intentions, relations between the governments of Zimbabwe and Britain remain poor. There is a new British ambassador in Harare. Does the delighted, ear to ear school-boyish grin of President Robert Mugabe on meeting her for the first time mean things are about to get better between the two governments? 

Look at the accompanying photo, courtesy of The Herald. It shows Mugabe body language we almost never see. At best Mugabe is usually serious and grim faced, and often scowling. The pressures of ruling Zimbabwe are considerable and many.  He may be accused of using every trick in the book to hang on to power but it does not appear to be a particularly happy affair for him, if his usual countenance is any indication.

But here is the fierce comrade Mugabe shown laughing almost joyfully, eyes lit up and face spread wide open in a manner that is almost startling for a reader accustomed to almost always seeing him with a vaguely menacing look. His arms are almost always stiffly straight down by his side, but here he is pictured with his left arm jauntily raised, and his legs tensed as if he is about to jump around with happiness, or perhaps to joyfully break into song and dance.

Beside him, just having presented her credentials to Mr. Mugabe, is new British ambassador to Zimbabwe Deborah Bronnert. She has a wide smile on her face as well, one that may yet get her in trouble back home in London with hysterically Mugabe-phobic media like the Daily Mail, The Telegraph and Sky TV. Are they not going to eat her alive for cozying up to 'brutal dictator Robert Mugabe,' their favored, most hated bogey man?

By all appearances, it is a very happy couple; two people thoroughly enjoying each other's company.

What on earth is going on here? In those few minutes of their first encounter, did they achieve a breakthrough to suddenly reverse all the many years of bitter counter-accusations about each side's perceived ill intentions towards the other? Is Bronnert so charming that she conquered Mugabe within just a few minutes of meeting him, whereas several of her predecessors have been given the cold, hostile treatment? 

Apparently not quite. Despite Bronnert and Mugabe's appearance of absolute infatuation with each other, the causes of the long-running tensions between their governments remain.

Britain's mantra is that Mugabe's government is deficient in its respect for 'human rights and democracy' and has imposed sanctions to show the level of its disapproval. Mugabe says that is just a cover for Britain's anger at Zimbabwe expropriating land from white farmers, most of them of British heritage. He further accuses Britain of funding his political opponents to effect 'regime change' to try to put in place a more British-amenable government in place of his. Some very ugly words have flown back and forth between the two governments over the last decade or so. There has been no recent diplomatic breakthrough.

Which is why the photo of the happy couple is so startling.   

Deborah reportedly asked her new pal Robert if observers from her country and the European Union would be allowed to monitor her host country's next election.

Mugabe is reported to have replied, "We want observers who will not have any choice on who to assist and who not to assist. We abhor meddling in our own electoral affairs. Britain should not be involved in such a campaign whether in our favour as Zanu-PF or against us. If there are to be any culprits, let it be others not the British. How can we invite people who have imposed sanctions on us to be our observers? By imposing sanctions those people have demonstrated dislike of one side. I hope Madam Ambassador, you are not suggesting that by not being invited to observe our elections, it means the elections will not be free and fair," he said.

Whatever her fast-working charms, Donnert should not have expected anything officially different in response to her question. Mugabe's answer is entirely consistent with how he views Britain's role in Zimbabwe's affairs: as strongly supporting his party's coalition government partner and electoral opponents, the MDC. Unfortunately for the UK, there is abundant evidence of that position, recently strengthened by Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cables.

Zimbabwe's elections have become increasingly messy and controversial, it is true. How to make that less so before the next election is one of the most contentious outstanding issues in the current MDC/ZANU-PF coalition government. In theory, having foreign observers would be one way of independent verification of how 'free and fair' the electoral process is.

But Britain counts as very much an interested as well as involved foreign party in Zimbabwe, rather than an impartial one. There have previously been no serious efforts to deny this, although Bronnert may indicate new thinking when she says her government was, "prepared to work with any government that emerges after elections." This may be so now, but it will not be quick or easy for her to convince anyone about this claimed shift to neutrality in Zimbabwe's electoral contests, although that is the right official position for a foreign government to take, whatever their actual preferences.
Bronnert said her boss British prime minister David Cameron "had indicated to her that Zimbabwe was a country of great importance to the UK and wanted briefings on accurate developments here every week." Cynics might say the 'special importance' of Zimbabwe to Britain has long been obvious, but not so obvious has been whether or not it has been benign and well-meaning.

If you are so concerned about 'democracy and human rights' as to impose sanctions on a Zimbabwe you say lacks them, how do you easily go to bed with countries like Saudi Arabia; who you visit, sell arms to and otherwise suck up to, but which do not even pretend to have a semblance of the democracy Zimbabwe does, imperfect as it may be? So the suspicion that Zimbabwe's 'special importance' to Britain was/is largely about the interests of the now largely dismantled white farming community cannot be entirely dismissed, and it will continue to cast a pall over relations between the two countries.     

With that disproportionately British-origin white farming community decimated, it is no longer in British interests to have its Zimbabwe policy so dependent upon their fate. Issues such as a British role in compensating the white farmers may still feature in the future. However, bigger present and future British interests are being jeopardized by the perception that the former colonial power's overriding policy motivations are (1) to assist in or even participate in the removal of Mugabe and (2) to protect white peoples' interests.   

Mugabe's resentment of alleged British support for and clear preference for the MDC is understandable. But ironically and hypocritically, he in turn also expresses partiality for Britain's ruling Conservative party over the Labor party of former prime minister, the Mugabe-hated Tony Blair, on whose watch relations between the two countries hit rock bottom. He reminded Ambassador Bronnert that it was under the Conservatives that Zimbabwe got its independence.

"We have not quarreled with Conservatives but if the Conservatives continue to implement Labor policies on sanctions then they are doing injustice to us and to themselves. Sanctions, we are asking you to take care of. We do not deserve them at all. The Conservatives should remove them," Mugabe grovelled to Bronnert.

'Sanctions' are a British policy, not a policy of either the Conservative or the Labor party. That it was the government of one or the other party that imposed them is neither here nor there. It is also bizarre how Mugabe seems to see Zimbabwe's winning of its independence during the rule in Britain of the Conservatives as proof of how they are somehow intrinsically better for relations with Zimbabwe than Labor.   

Mr. Mugabe, was Zimbabwe's Independence in 1980 a 'favor' from your 'friends' the British Conservatives, then led by Margaret Thatcher? Are you likewise asking today's generation of Conservatives under Cameron to do you another 'favor' by removing sanctions?

Independence was an imperative whose time had come, regardless of which party ruled in Britain at the time. The removal of sanctions now can be justified by countless solid reasons for both sides, regardless of whether it is Labor or the Conservatives in power in London.

Mr. Mugabe, please respect the sovereignty of the British people and stop publicly discussing which of their political parties you prefer, which is an unfair intrusion by a foreigner into their internal affairs! And please stop groveling to the Conservatives and to young Mrs. Bronnert for favors, it makes you look weak and  pathetic.    

There is a very long way to go before relations between Britain and Zimbabwe can ever become 'normal' and truly mutually respectful. On both sides are long-held, deep-seated views and expectations about the other that are outdated, but very difficult to overcome. On both sides, a deep colonial mentality about the other still looms very large.

Britain has never been able to see African countries beyond 'look at how much aid we are giving you, that is the proof of our good intentions.'  They expect as a matter of right to be able to have influence over those African countries as a result of those alms, but at the same time the inherent power imbalance of such a donor-recipient relationship means that they are unable to respect the Africans; to see them as equals.

The Africans, on the other hand, resent the contempt for them for being perpetual beggars, but they encourage that relationship, and eagerly pine for the approval of 'mama Britain,' as shown by Mugabe's groveling behavior to Bronnert. They want to be treated with respect and dignity, but they know at some level that can't happen as long as they are perpetual recipients of 'donations,' which they are nevertheless too psychologically weak to wean themselves of. That just compounds their sense of smoldering, helpless resentment. 

The impediments to truly good relations are therefore not so much policy issues between one administration in either country and the other, but deep psychological issues that go way back to the colonial era. Britain can't quite see its African 'children' as adults, and the Africans who resent being treated like children can't quite get over the deeply entrenched idea of Britain as their mother whose approval they still seek. For both sides, "it's not yet Uhuru," in many deeply sad, unconscious ways.

But still, what exactly could have made tough-guy Mugabe act in the uncharacteristic way he did in front of Bronnert?

Mugabe is known to have a deep, abiding love for the British. Some say his particular recent bitterness towards them is out of a hurt sense of being spurned by a people he so admires, whose approbation he so sought and desired.

Almost metaphorically on his knees, Mugabe said to Bronnert, "We are friendly. We do not harm anyone so please help us, I plead. We do not deserve sanctions. We are not enemies with Britain at all in spite of all that has happened. We may dislike what has happened, yes, but we are not enemies.''

In response to Mugabe's groveling, Bronnert delivered what may have been the punch that knocked all the fire out of the once fierce old man, making him 'plead' to Bronnert in a way that he has not been known to do for anything from anyone before.

According to the Herald, ''The ambassador also relayed to President Mugabe Queen Elizabeth's warm greetings.''

Was that the killer blow?

The paper does not tell us if it is at the delivery of that little bit of a greeting from the British monarch by Bronnert that the Britishophilic Mugabe broke into his broad grin and seemed to want to jump up and down with delight. The Herald does not say whether it is that point that the previously hotly Africanist lion turned into a meowing pussycat in British hands.

Oh boy, relations may indeed be set to gradually warm up on the surface, but it doesn't look like they will be the dispassionate, mature and mutually respectful kind any time soon. 

The Zimbabwe Review

Related: Britain's policy on Zimbabwe has failed, needs a rethink


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