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Opinion: Mugabe retains grip on foreign affairs

Visit of Iran's Ahmadinejad shows wide gap between Mugabe and Tsvangirai.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, right, and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, are welcomed at Harare International Airport, April 22, 2010. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

HARARE, Zimbabwe — When European nations in the 19th century wrested accountable governance from their monarchs by putting in place parliamentary systems, one area remained outside their scope. Foreign policy, it was said, was the “domain of the king.”

That view is alive and well in today’s Zimbabwe. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs might as well close down. It is a mere cipher. President Robert Mugabe, 86, exercises sole power and despite the formation of a government of national unity (GNU) he brooks no interference from his purported partners.

This has led to predictable resentment. Recently President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran visited Zimbabwe as Mugabe’s guest. He was met at Harare International Airport by a 21-gun salute as jets screamed overhead. Cabinet ministers lined up to greet the honored guest.

But something was missing in this otherwise warm welcome. Mugabe’s partners in government, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, were conspicuous in their absence.

Neither Tsvangirai nor his ministers put in an appearance. They were all in Bulawayo attending the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair, which the Iranian leader would later open.

The word “snub” was put to good use in both the private and official media. An MDC statement made it clear this was not a visitor that the party would welcome.

“As a party we feel that a country is defined by its friends,” the statement said. “We want to place it on record that judging by his record Ahmadinejad is coming, not as a friend of Zimbabwe but as an ally of those who unilaterally invited him.

“Choice of friends defines character,” the MDC said, “and inviting the Iranian strongman to an investment forum is like inviting a mosquito to cure malaria.”

This, needless to say, incensed Mugabe’s followers who claimed the MDC was taking its marching orders from Washington and London.

But the episode underlined the fragility of the unity government.

Mugabe remains wedded to the postures of an earlier era when Zimbabwe was part of an international network subscribing to Marxist-Leninist values. Part of that structure remains intact in the form of the Non-Aligned Movement.