26 October 2017

Zimbabwe: Open Forum - and Who Is to Blame?


This week, President Robert Mugabe suffered a major diplomatic setback, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) revoked his short-lived appointment as its goodwill ambassador for Non-Communicable Diseases in Africa.

In normal circumstances, one could view this as a diplomatic embarrassment for Zimbabwe.

This is because, ideally, heads of State represent the sovereign interests of their nations. But Zimbabwe is far from this ideal situation.

Mugabe's standing as a representative of sovereign Zimbabwe has been significantly attenuated by successive dubious elections, which have, in turn, denuded his legitimacy in the eyes of many.

As his stock plummeted, Mugabe and his merry band of followers have taken even routine, rotational international positions such as leadership of regional blocs as some sort of personal endorsement.

It's all about him, not Zimbabwe.

It is no wonder that, contrary to what his head-in-the-sand supporters want to believe, Zimbabweans led the charge to have the WHO appointment rescinded.

True, Mugabe's usual western foes did express their disquiet and possibly influenced the decision.

But the outrage from Zimbabweans, citing the president's poor record on public health, was no less significant.

After considerable investment in public health in his first decade in power, Mugabe has presided over the collapse of the sector, dramatised by a cholera outbreak which killed more than 4 000 people between 2008 and early 2009.

It does not help matters that the president and his family frequently seek treatment abroad.

Mugabe's appointment as a WHO goodwill ambassador had been predictably cheered by State-controlled media as a "new feather in (the)President's cap."

The president and his foreign policy apparatchiks, no doubt, took the WHO appointment as another step in his remarkable transition from a feared leader of a 1970s guerrilla outfit to an 80s international statesman, pariah after 2000 to a somewhat restored continental player in his twilight.

The magnitude of this task, which requires exceptional diplomatic skills, looks decidedly Sisyphean when one considers that Mugabe has just appointed probably his greenest foreign affairs minister, with very little foreign policy experience.

Walter Mzembi's foreign policy bona fides do not extend much beyond a losing campaign for the United Nations World Tourism Organisation's secretary general's position last year. His predecessors include the sardonically brilliant Stan Mudenge who, reacting to Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth in 2002, famously channeled combative British politician Denis Healy: "It's like being savaged by a dead sheep!"

Mudenge, like his predecessors Nathan Shamuyarira, Witness Mangwende and Simon Muzenda, who doubled as deputy premier and foreign affairs minister at independence, all had some passable foreign policy expertise, experience or both.

The suave Mzembi's successor, Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, had served as deputy foreign affairs minister and ambassador to the United Nations, the European Union and the United Kingdom before his appointment as minister.

Diplomacy, that age-old art of influencing the decisions and behaviour of foreign governments and peoples through guile and not war, seeks to advance the interests of a State by maximising its advantages without the risk or expense of using force and, preferably, without causing resentment.

The last part is important.

If Mugabe and his advisors did not anticipate the ensuing furore after the WHO appointment, then they do not quite grasp the level of resentment they evoke in many circles.

And they have no one but themselves to blame.

Not western governments and certainly not irreverent social media warriors.


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