In Zimbabwe, diplomats tread lightly

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe’s state-owned media have a trick up their sleeve when new ambassadors present their credentials to President Robert Mugabe.

Let loose after the ceremony, they pounce on the rookie envoys to ask something bound to compromise them such as, "Should sanctions against Zimbabwe be lifted?" The newcomers then make a diplomatically optimistic statement which is then spun by the state media into a ringing endorsement of the Mugabe regime.

The diplomats then spend a good deal of time and energy in their first weeks in office seeking to “clarify” what they actually said.

No, they didn’t say "sanctions should be lifted." They said that once the terms agreed by all three parties in government had been fulfilled, "sanctions would naturally go." Not quite the same thing.

The Swedish ambassador to Harare spent the entire duration of his assignment in Harare wishing he hadn’t pledged himself to “build bridges” between Zimbabwe and the West. When he departed last month after a four-year stay, he was excoriated by the state media for having plotted behind the scenes to pile pressure on Mugabe to deliver meaningful change. Meanwhile, his colleagues derided his naivety in thinking he could build bridges, a galling predicament for an old Africa hand who had served elsewhere in the region in the 1980s.

A previous U.S. ambassador explained the diplomats' dilemma: “Most new arrivals think Zimbabwe is a wonderful country with wonderful people. Its problems cannot possibly be intractable, they conclude. So the first six months are spent in a round of futile negotiations until the new boy realizes he is banging his head against a brick wall marked Mugabe.”

U.S. ambassadors have taken to saying and doing what they like in preference to diplomatically dancing around the issues. The previous American ambassador, James McGee, a large man, led a motorcade of vehicles containing diplomats and journalists into the country’s interior inspecting hospitals to collect evidence of state-sponsored political violence. Where security officers attempted to block access by closing gates, the ambassador simply forced them open.

Last month, the new European Union ambassador, Aldo dell’Arricia, presented his credentials to Mugabe. "What do you think of the current reforms such as the new Media Commission?" a reporter for the official media asked.

“I have been in this country for the past eight days,” dell'Arricia replied, “and what I can tell you is that there is a press that is free. You can read newspapers in this country and have a feeling of independent information.”

Having just “got off the boat,” he didn’t notice that there were no private media present to cover the presentation. They hadn’t been admitted. Nor were there any independent radio or TV stations present. There aren’t any. The only voice heard across the land is Mugabe’s.

Now dell’Arricia has some catching up to do. His claim that Zimbabwe had a free media was immediately picked up by the state media and reported as “Zim’s press free.”

The last thing Zimbabwean journalists, especially those facing charges for criticizing Mugabe, want to hear is how free they are from new arrivals.

There is indeed a Media Commission in place which has issued several newspaper licenses, but it is staffed by an official of the old regime who uses his column in the state-run press to denounce the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in excoriating terms. And no new radio or TV stations have been licensed. The media minister has still not found it within himself to give assurances of safe passage to Zimbabwean journalists wishing to return from the diaspora.

Elsewhere, evidence of meaningful reform is scarce. The Human Rights Commission has been told it cannot investigate events before 2009. As much of the electoral violence took place in 2008, this lets a lot of state employees off the hook. An intelligence officer from Mugabe’s office who has been mentioned in court proceedings in connection with burning to death two MDC activists in 2000 remains free.

Many diplomats arriving in the country reflect the upbeat mood of MDC leaders and only later discard their Pollyanna perspectives. The U.S. envoys by contrast remain skeptical.

Speaking after meeting, a bipartisan delegation from Zimbabwe on Sept. 23, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson and Senior Director for African Affairs Michelle Gavin said “the current political and human rights environment remains troublesome,” pointing to the recent harassment of WOZA — Women of Zimbabwe Arise — and the violent disruptions of constitutional reform meetings in Harare by Mugabe's supporters.

“Our sanctions are under regular review,” the U.S. officials said in response to pressure from the Zimbabwean negotiators to lift sanctions, “but as long as human rights violations, land seizures and intimidation of those participating in the political process continue, the sanctioned individuals and entities on the list who continue to perpetrate and benefit from these acts are unlikely to be removed.”

In the week before the Zimbabwe negotiators arrived in Washington, one of Mugabe’s most influential ministers, Didymus Mutasa, said Zanu-PF would never allow Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai to rule the country.

“If we go to the polls and he defeats Mugabe, Zanu-PF and the people of Zimbabwe will not allow that,” Mutasa told supporters.

It is difficult to be upbeat in these circumstances, activists point out.