HARARE, Zimbabwe — While the attention of the world’s press has been focused on the impact of whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks where it concerns United States relations with long-standing allies and friends, there has been less interest in the embarrassment caused by disclosures from U.S. embassies in less important locations.
In Zimbabwe, for instance, WikiLeaks’s claims about diamond transactions by President Robert Mugabe’s wife, Grace, have led the first lady to file a hefty lawsuit against a local newspaper that carried the story. She is currently suing the Standard, an independent weekly, for $15 million for publishing a WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. Embassy in Harare that linked her to to illegal diamond sales.
The Mugabe government is currently seeking to export diamonds from its controversial Chiadzwa mine in eastern Zimbabwe. There have been numerous reports of corruption among Mugabe’s ministers seeking to secure control of the diamonds and there are also allegations of human rights abuses by the army that has run the rich alluvial diamond mine, first discovered in 2006.
Grace is a dedicated follower of fashion who lashes out at paparazzi when they catch her emerging from boutiques with items bearing designer labels on trips to Rome and Hong Kong.
“The article wrongly portrayed [Mrs.] Mugabe,” her lawyers claim, “as corrupt in that she used her position as the First Lady to access diamonds clandestinely, enriching herself in circumstances in which the country was facing serious foreign currency shortages [2008.]”
Grace is “of high status and well-regarded internationally,” her lawyers asserted, referring to her as “Mother of the Nation.”
This has drawn irreverent guffaws in the private media and the public in general. Grace has never been referred to as “the Mother of the Nation,” columnists point out. She is certainly not “well-regarded internationally” and in fact has a number of prohibition orders against her preventing entry to Europe and North America unless her husband is attending a United Nations conference.
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Grace Mugabe has also been named in reports as having illegally seized land, her critics point out, noting that one of her victims was a High Court judge. The so-called “Mother of the Nation” educates her children abroad, her critics add. She has also denounced Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in excoriating terms promising that his late wife Susan would never enter the official residence, State House.
Another WikiLeaks cable published by a South African news agency last week shone an interesting light upon U.S. diplomacy in Zimbabwe. Former U.S. Ambassador James McGee recorded how Congressman Donald Payne, who was finally granted an interview with Robert Mugabe after a lengthy wait, was treated to a one-hour monologue in which the 86-year-old ruler portrayed himself as the victim of international abuse and broken promises.
“He talked non-stop without so much as a sip of water,” wrote McGee in a cable headed “Tea with Mugabe” (May 2009). Growing increasingly adamant and agitated, Mugabe asked: “In the context of all the countries in the world, are we really the worst?”
Payne managed to propitiate the prickly dictator by declaring himself to be a one-time fan of Mugabe. He pointed to the “stark dichotomy” between the compassionate statesman who fought for freedom and the current government that now allows police to beat black women, a reference to Woza (Women of Zimbabwe Arise) a group honored by the U.S. administration for its bravery in demonstrating for human rights in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe looked stunned, McGee noted. “Which women,” he asked? “Where did they get them from?”
After that he perked up, McGee said. “Well I think we deserve some tea,” the president declared which, to the amusement of the Americans, was served by staff in white gloves.
For several weeks WikiLeaks has been providing ammunition to Mugabe’s Zanu-PF in its war against Tsvangirai. The description by McGee’s predecessor, Christopher Dell, that the MDC leader was “weak and indecisive” has been endlessly put to work in the state media as the country prepares for polls later this year.
Now the tables have been turned as the new WikiLeaks document protrays Mugabe as rather pathetically telling Payne that he hadn’t had many international visitors recently and he was described as appearing desperate to be treated as an international statesman again.
Payne described his three-hour session with Mugabe as “surreal.”