What Mugabe's 2011 UN speech revealed

Sep 20, 2011

President Robert Mugabe, his wife Grace and their entourage are in New York for a UN summit, the second one they have attended in as many months. Mugabe delivered a speech about the fight against non-communicable diseases which was very revealing, though not necessarily in the ways intended.

The Mugabes seem rather fond of New York. Despite the U.S. government declaring them personae non grata, they will use every slight opportunity afforded by the cover of a UN meeting to visit the world's shopping capital. This time Mugabe gave a speech on diseases, last month it was on the affairs of youth. Neither are causes for which Mugabe has been lauded by anyone in recent years, or even shown particular interest in.

But Mugabe eagerly welcomes the now rare-for-him opportunity to address a global audience, and he has always loved to display his skills at smartly wearing a suit and making a speech. With a suitably grand title like the High-Level Meeting on Non Communicable Diseases, there is no way Mugabe was going to be left out of the UN talk shop.

What about the content of his speech?

''...the devastation caused to the continent by the HIV and Aids pandemic. It is common cause that Africa is the least developed continent and consequently, the least able to cope with such a scourge. I, therefore, call upon the international community, especially the developed countries, to increase their assistance particularly to Africa towards preventing and controlling NCDs."

The expression ''it is common cause'' is much loved in Zimbabwe by a certain clique. It sounds like a vaguely more sophisticated way of saying ''it is commonly understood,'' but it does not seem to be in widespread use anywhere else. An expression that therefore sounds 'educated' in Zimbabwe may therefore sound merely quaint, stiff or pretentious elsewhere. English now has countless international variations, but in general parochial words or phrases don't carry over very well to an international audience.

''Least developed continent'' is an expression often used with regards to Africa, mostly by western writers. The problem with it is that most of the time, it is used in a way that seems to define Africa by its least developed-ness. In other words, what it suggests is that the primary and over-riding characteristic by which Africa can be thought of /described is that it is ''least developed.''

Clearly many non-Africans have that as their idea of the defining quality of Africa, but one would not expect an African president to think of that as the primary impression of his continent too. How many Africans spend a great deal of their time thinking ''we are the least developed?'' Most just get on with their lives, making the best of their various situations that they can.

This is the same with any other 'disadvantage' anyone has to live with. Being poor, illiterate, physically disabled or 'least developed' are all competitive disadvantages in certain areas of life, but they are not what or who you essentially are. Awareness of it may be in the background, but it is not a constant, nagging thought in one one's mind in the way many users of 'least developed continent' use that expression in connection with Africa. 

''Least developed'' (it also needs definition but that is beside the point here) gives the impression of people so overcome by that status that they spend every minute wallowing in it, which is far from the case. When some foreigners come from developed countries in particular, and especially if they go to rural Africa, they are indeed overwhelmed by a sense of 'least developed-ness,' but they also frequently comment on how it doesn't mean people are spending their time down in the dumps about it. They are too busy hustling to make ends meet, too busy just living.

Furthermore, Mugabe used the term as if it is a sort of bargaining position, but in a thoroughly negative way. It was as if to say, ''We Africans are so poor, least developed and helpless; you developed countries therefore have an obligation to help us.'' Some will stretch to invoke slavery time and colonial obligations, but it is all a stretch, particularly when you consider that Mugabe has been one of the rhetorically loudest advocates for Africa standing up on its own feet. 
The term in the context used in Mugabe's speech just sounds particularly odd coming out of the mouth of an African president.

More importantly and astonishingly is Mugabe's implication that since it is ''common cause'' that Africa is ''least developed,'' the rest of the world, ''especially the developed countries,'' must ''increase their assistance towards preventing and controlling NCDs.''

Why? Does the rest of the world owe Africa anything in this regard? And even if it did, suppose they just said 'no?' What would be the fall back plan to deal with NCDs of Africa's rulers, of who Mugabe has been a prominent one for 30 years? Pleading for outside help may be one tactic of dealing with a problem, but it is not a strategy. By so pleading for help without also and first outlining what Africa is doing for itself in this regard, it sounds like Mugabe is putting the primary responsibility for solving this great problem on ''the international community.''

What are you in power so tenaciously for if it is not to provide solutions to a basic problem that affects so many of the people you rule over? In the case of Mugabe, who sometimes talks as if he invented the concepts of national 'sovereignty' and of 'non-interference in internal affairs,' this sounds even more odd. If you are so opposed to interference in your country by outsiders in some contexts, why do you base solving other basic problems, like those to do with food and health, on the 'interference' of those same outsiders?

It particularly strikes a hypocritical, discordant note coming from Mugabe.

He demanded ''time bound'' commitments by developed countries ''to ensure access to medicines, appropriate technology transfer and further training for our health personnel on NCDs.'' These points have been dealt with by many experts over the years, but what jumped out of Mugabe's speech was the sense of entitlement for help, and the suggestion of helplessness at addressing the problems of concern mentioned, other than what he is pleading for developing countries to do.

He then went on to to floweringly say a lot of nothing and repeat a lot of what everybody already knows about the challenges posed by NCDs.

At the end of reading his speech, one was struck by a sense of ''what really was the point?''

Particularly for a ruler with the history and reputation of Mugabe and a country with the many challenges of Zimbabwe, it sounded almost bizarre for him to travel all the way to New York to deliver such an underwhelming speech. It is not difficult to imagine that almost no one listening to or watching him would be paying any great attention to his pearls of wisdom, if any, about NCDs.

They would probably be instead thinking of whether Mugabe should be addressing the UN as a head of state at all after the allegedly stolen election of 2008. They would be thinking about the Wikileaks claim that he is dying of prostrate cancer. That Wikileaks has revealed that many of his closest advisers want him to step down, and are not as admiring of and loyal to him as they claim to be to his face. That his once food 'breadbasket' country is now a food 'basket case.'

Fairly or unfairly, these are the sort of issues with which Mugabe has become most closely associated. To travel all the way to New York to address the UN on disease prevention flies against the face of the fact that he himself receives medical treatment abroad because of the state of his country's once exemplary health system.

The overall impression was of a leader addressing a serious issue affecting his country and many others, but one who didn't actually have any solid solutions to offer. It was a speech that suggested an abdication of primary responsibility for solving the problem he was discussing to foreign actors; the same foreigners he frequently attacks as having evil intentions against his country and government. If so, how can you then implore them to be the saviors of your people against NCDs? Do you have a plan B if they decline to help you, on the basis that you have accused them of being your enemies?

Rather than calling attention to the merits of the points he was making in his speech, all these issues that are now a part of the persona Mugabe has carved out for himself took to the fore. His accumulated notoriety over many issues is now a bigger part of how he is viewed internationally than can be any point he has to share about NCDs.

Mugabe seems more eager to go to the UN to give speeches than he seems to be to solve the problems he likes to speechify about. Staying at home might have meant foregoing New York's shopping experiences and the per diems that go with such much sought-after trips, but it might have been more honorable.

There must have been many like this writer who were wondering why with all the great challenges Zimbabwe faces, Mugabe feels going to New York to make speeches is so important. It merely emphasized a man out of touch with the day to day struggles of his people. Even on a purely symbolic level, his gestures are more towards the irrelevant than the practical.

If Mugabe really wanted to carve out a reputation as a champion of dealing with NCDs back home, there are many other more meaningful symbolic ways he could do so. But then they wouldn't entail the glamor of trips to New York, or the 'prestige' of addressing the UN.

The speech was indeed illuminating, but neither in ways that were intended, nor that were flattering to Mugabe.

The Zimbabwe Review

Related: Deconstructing Tsvangirai's Chicago speech


Anonymous said...

Asif ud have been able to deliver a single speech at such a high fora...dont be over critical.The man has talent ...face it

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