HARARE, Zimbabwe — President Robert Mugabe is a bitter man.
When U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson attempted to explain that human rights abuses in Zimbabwe were blocking the country’s access to international aid, Mugabe branded him an "idiot."
Mugabe, 85, could barely contain himself when the two met on the sidelines of an African Union summit in Libya in early July.
Mugabe had hoped that Carson, a former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, would help relieve the country's isolation from the West, as a reward for the creation of the power-sharing government forged with Mugabe's long-time foe, Morgan Tsvangirai. But when Carson attempted to suggest the need for Zimbabwe to improve its governance record, Mugabe flew into a rage and cut the meeting short.
He wouldn’t speak again to “an idiot of that nature,” Mugabe told Zimbabwe’s state media. “I was very angry with him, and he thinks he could dictate to us what to do …Who is he? I hope he was not speaking for [President Barack] Obama. I told him he was a great shame, being an African-American.”
Mugabe is having difficulty understanding why, given the very visible representation of black Americans in the Obama administration, there are no takers for his racial-solidarity mantras. He comforts himself with the thought that officials such as Carson and recently departed U.S. Ambassador James McGee are not representative of Obama’s thinking.
McGee, who made a robust defense of U.S. policy in his valedictory speech on July 4, made it clear where his sympathies lay.
“The rule of law and human rights are still under attack,” he said in defiance of a Zimbabwean Ministry of Foreign Affairs directive not to make a speech. “Innocent Zimbabweans continue to be arrested and prosecuted.”
McGee last year led a convoy of diplomatic vehicles into Mugabe’s heart of darkness — rural hospitals where evidence of beatings of opposition supporters by the president’s thugs was all too evident. McGee, a large man, pushed aside officials trying to block him.
He will be succeeded by Charles Ray, an African-American career diplomat who has served as ambassador to Cambodia and also as deputy assistant secretary of state for defense.
There has also been a changing of the guard at Harare's British Embassy, viewed by the regime as unforgivably hostile.
Previous British envoys have been castigated over the land issue, declining to take up what the government says is the former colonial power’s responsibility to compensate dispossessed white farmers. Outgoing British Ambassador Andrew Pocock in a recent statement made it clear that the lawlessness on the land was the product of Zimbabwe government policy.
“Therefore we have no legal obligation for compensation. We’ve never accepted that and we won’t,” he said.
His replacement, Mark Canning, has been transferred from Burma. His experience in dealing with a recidivist regime is obviously thought useful by Britain’s Foreign Office. Mugabe is evicting the few remaining white farmers still on the land in a move bound to compound Zimbabwe's food shortages.
The backgrounds of the two incoming ambassadors show that their governments view Zimbabwe as a trouble spot with a dangerous leader. Both the U.S. and British governments see Mugabe as in charge of the power-sharing government and responsible for the lack of progress made in restoring the rule of law and respect for human rights.
If Mugabe had any hopes left of an entente with Obama, they would have been dashed by the U.S. president’s speech in Accra, Ghana.
He praised the work of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network which he said “braved brutal repression to stand up for the principle that a person’s vote is their sacred right.”
Two days before those remarks, Mugabe had been telling a meeting of investors that his government had honored its commitment to pay compensation to evicted white farmers for improvements on their properties, an economy with the truth that had commentators gasping at its boldness. Mugabe promised that his government would uphold property rights when it has seized farms supposedly protected by bilateral investment agreements with foreign governments.
Business people weren’t impressed either by Mugabe’s claim that his government’s Indigenization and Economic Empowerment Bill, requiring that investors permit Zimbabweans to take a 51 percent share in their businesses, was designed to promote the participation of “our people” in the economy.
“We all know who 'our people' are," one commentator quipped in reference to the avaricious gang around Mugabe, who have benefited from many other "indigenization" schemes.
Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, who is from the opposition side of the unity government, took issue with the president at the same meeting. He said the government should stop blaming the West for the country’s decline. Instead it should uphold the rule of law and safeguard property rights.
“For you to be trusted, credible to investors, we must resolve outstanding matters because if we don’t we lose credibility,” Mutambara said referring to a raft of unfulfilled goals set by the parties last September. “How can we convince investors if we don’t respect our own agreement?”
Mugabe looked studiously ahead, as if none of this had anything to do with him.
So long as he remains the principal obstacle to change, Zimbabwe’s prospects of recovery remain slim.
The incoming U.S. and British ambassadors are sure to ram that point home in their dealings with Zimbabwe's recalcitrant ruler.
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