Robert Mugabe versus Richard Branson

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BOSTON — Robert Mugabe versus Sir Richard Branson: Who will win in this classic clash between Africa's iconic dictator and Britain's ever-smiling airline billionaire?

Unfortunately not the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe.

It began innocently enough Monday when Branson urged international donors to channel funds to jump start Zimbabwe's stalled economy.

"If everybody waits on the sidelines, it will be the people who suffer. The present state of politics in Zimbabwe is by no means perfect, but it's a great deal better," said Branson, unveiling his fund, Enterprise Zimbabwe, to major philanthropists and investors at the Clinton Global Initiative forum on the sidelines of the United Nations anti-poverty summit.

“Zimbabwe, of all the African countries, it’s got the best chance of getting back … it just needs a bit of help being kick-started,” said Branson, whose autobiography is titled “Screw It, Let’s Do It.”

Branson designed his fund to reassure private donors who want to invest but are concerned with how the funds will be used. Worries remain that foreign investment will go to politicians rather than ordinary people.

“The idea of Enterprise Zimbabwe is to have a sort of safe haven for people to invest through," said Branson.

Branson’s pitch was widely seen as an effort to attract funds to prop up Zimbabwe’s shaky coalition government, in which Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party are joined with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and two wings of the Movement for Democratic Change.

In the power-sharing government Tsvangirai is now prime minister, but Mugabe still calls the shots.
Mugabe, 86, and in power for 30 years, makes all major policy decisions and controls the army, police and intelligence agency.

Major donors and investors have largely stayed away from Zimbabwe because Mugabe and his party have a track record of corruption and diverting funds from their intended uses.

Mugabe should welcome Branson’s big publicity, right? Wrong.

Branson’s effort came just as Mugabe is ramping up his campaign for upcoming elections in 2011. Mugabe postures himself as the radical African leader who stands up to the British colonialists. Mugabe cannot resist taking aim at the nearest British target, whether it is white farmers, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or now Richard Branson.

Branson’s appeal to help Zimbabwe was excoriated as an attempt at “backdoor entry by vultures disguised as angels,” wrote Tendai Midzi, whose father is Zanu-PF chairman, in the state-owned Herald newspaper.

Branson’s effort was dismissed by Midzi as merely an attempt to counter “the power of China. Zimbabwe does not need investments disguised as philanthropic work now. The international community has now realized that this jewel we call Zimbabwe, having discovered large deposits of diamonds, is now able to lift itself out of the poverty that the West helped create in the first place.”

Take that, Sir Richard.

Branson’s plea for support for Zimbabwe also came at a moment when Mugabe and Zanu-PF are taking off their gloves and battering Zimbabwe’s democracy.

Mugabe’s supporters attacked citizens attending a public hearing for a new constitution, using iron bars and bricks. One of Tsvangirai’s supporters died from the injuries, it was reported Wednesday.

As a result of the violence, the process of creating a new constitution has been suspended. This calls into question the entire effort to return Zimbabwe to democracy through a new constitution and then free and fair elections.

A stronger democracy is exactly what Robert Mugabe does not want.