HARARE, Zimbabwe — It wasn’t a triumphal parade, but nor was it the abject failure the government press would have its readers believe.
Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai returned to Harare, ending his three-week tour of Europe and the United States this week satisfied that he had reestablished ties with the West, damaged after 29 years of President Robert Mugabe’s unrelenting hostility. The sums of money pledged to Tsvangirai may be modest, but it is what it symbolized that matters.
“His visit has proved one thing,” declared Wilf Mbanga, exiled publisher of The Zimbabwean. “The international community cares deeply about the people of Zimbabwe and would like to help them get back on the road to peace, prosperity and good governance.”
Tsvangirai was given the red-carpet treatment wherever he went, meeting U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office and inspecting a guard of honour with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. British premier Gordon Brown greeted him like a long-lost friend.
But wherever he went he was haunted by the same question: Was he his own man?
Zimbabwe’s state-run media unhelpfully claimed Tsvangirai had been “tasked” by Mugabe to bring home the billions needed for recovery and secure the lifting of sanctions. He failed in both respects — Obama offered a scant $73 million — but the U.S. president rejected the suggestion that Tsvangirai was Mugabe’s errand boy. Faced with the dilemma of a courageous democratic icon and a recidivist ruler in Harare, Western leaders promised further support as soon as certain benchmarks on governance were met.
But Tsvangirai didn’t help his own case by gushing in Pollyanna terms over his “extraordinary” working relationship with Mugabe. And the state-media seemed delighted that he returned home “empty-handed”.
But they were deliberately missing the point. Western leaders know only too well that the face of Zimbabwe's beast is still visible. The police and military remain untamed. Just before Tsvangirai told BBC radio listeners how much the political climate in Zimbabwe had changed, police officers in Harare were laying into a group of peaceful women demonstrators with batons. There were far too many demonstrations taking place, a police spokesman said, and they didn’t have permission.
The group’s leader, Jenni Williams, pleaded with Western governments to leave sanctions in place until reform is tangible.
Many share this view. University of Zimbabwe political science professor John Makumbe in his regular newspaper column last week said: “Targeted sanctions against selected perpetrators of dictatorship and violence must remain firmly in place.” Seven supporters of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change were still missing, he noted, while others faced prosecution on trumped up charges.
“It would be premature to lift (the) sanctions,” Makumbe said, “against the Zanu-PF hoodlums whose sole aim is to go and retrieve their ill-gotten wealth hidden in the banks of some of these Western countries.”
Responding to these concerns, Western leaders took steps to ensure aid funds were routed through non-governmental organizations and not the government. Further, Britain refused a visa to one of Tsvangirai’s retinue, a minister in Mugabe’s government, while Obama declined to meet another — to howls of outrage in Zimbabwe's official media.
By the end of his tour, Tsvangirai can have been left in little doubt that Western leaders were not buying his claim that Mugabe was a changed man.
Nor were hundreds of Zimbabweans packed into London’s Southwark Cathedral on Saturday. For the first time in his 10-year political career Tsvangirai was booed by an audience when he suggested it was time for them to go home. The crowd of exiles was vociferously skeptical of Tsvangirai's claims that peace and stability and the rule of law now reign in Zimbabwe.
So long as Zimbabwe remains a police state and its ruler continues to block reform, including media reform, Western leaders will sit on their check books. Only two weeks ago Zimbabwe's media minister ignored a High Court order to allow journalists to operate freely without state accreditation. Paying no heed to the court ruling, the Zimbabwean minister refused journalists permission to cover a regional meeting of heads of state at the Victoria Falls. Tsvangirai had told them to go ahead regardless, in compliance with the law.
Morgan Tsvangirai has returned from his tour of Western capitals with a bit of money and a firm message: no massive aid will be forthcoming until the rule of law is restored, basic freedoms are respected and sound economic policies are implemented. Tsvangirai must convey that to Mugabe and his henchmen who are doing exactly the opposite.
More GlobalPost dispatches from Zimbabwe:
Zimbabwe's elderly whites return to Britain
Zimbabwe's split personality
Mugabe is still the boss
Harare rocks with cultural festival