Opinion: Mugabe retains grip on foreign affairs

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.

But the days when the Zimbabwean despot could strut upon the international stage with authority have long since passed. The collapse of the Communist bloc tore away the struts underpinning international support for regimes such as Mugabe’s.

Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s visit in 1983 was a high-water mark for Zimbabwe’s post-independence diplomacy but nowadays even Chinese leaders give Harare a wide berth.

Mugabe’s unilateral invitation to Ahmadinejad has once again focused attention on the shortcomings of the GNU. Senior officials appointed by Mugabe recently declared they were under no obligation to attend meetings of the Council of Ministers that Tsvangirai chairs. A “Government Work Plan” drawn up largely by MDC ministers to plan for the year ahead had not been approved by the cabinet and was therefore unconstitutional, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa declared last week. Chinamasa lost his seat to the MDC in the 2008 election.

Observers are waiting to see what impact this obstruction of government business will have on a forthcoming visit to Brussels of several cabinet ministers, including Chinamasa, to get European Union sanctions lifted. Despite suggestions that some concessions may be forthcoming, it is difficult to see what tangible progress the GNU can point to as warranting their removal.

The heads of Zimbabwe's bloated state-owned corporations recently refused to give the MDC minister responsible for parastatals accurate estimates of their incomes. Only 10 out of 85 submitted the information required. Others submitted false information, according to local reports.

The chief executives of the state-owned corporations enjoy hefty incomes and generous allowances, including entertainment allowances running into thousands of dollars. Their children’s education and payment of domestic staff are also paid for by their companies, many of which are in financial difficulties. The companies include fuel and power providers.

The minister, Gabuza Joel Gabbuza, said he was “only trying to rationalize salaries of chief executives and at the same time rectify anomalies where the top brass are earning unrealistic salaries while their companies are constantly applying for government bail-outs.” Most CEOs in state companies are the beneficiaries of Mugabe’s patronage.

Mugabe continues to be the chief obstacle to change, clawing back as many powers as possible, and threatening to do to the business sector what he has done to agriculture. South African negotiators appear not to have made much impact, with President Jacob Zuma giving the impression he is out of his depth. British officials had no difficulty rebutting his attempt to get sanctions lifted when he visited London earlier this year.

With over a year of tenure behind it, the GNU’s report card reads “could do better.”