The way to make Robert Mugabe go

By Peter Hain (THE TIMES, 22/06/08):

Robert Mugabe patted me on the knee as we sat in his favourite London hotel, his wife Grace recently in from one of her infamous shopping trips that put even Imelda Marcos to shame.

“I know you are not one of them, Peter; you are one of us,” he said, acknowledging me as a son of Africa with an antiapartheid record, including campaigning against Ian Smith’s racist white-minority regime, which had imprisoned him in the old Rhodesia.

My Foreign Office officials were delighted. So were his. After a period of bad relations, at last we have a basis for future dialogue, they said after our meeting in 1999, when I was Britain’s Africa minister.

But the very next day everything turned on its head. The radical gay-rights activist Peter Tatchell confronted the notoriously homophobic Mugabe outside the hotel and attempted a citizen’s arrest for infringement of human rights.

Outraged, Mugabe flipped. He got his foreign minister to blame me for orchestrating the protest. Preposterous though that was, Mugabe convinced himself he was again the victim of a fiendish British plot. Later, on the BBC, he told an incredulous David Dimbleby that I was Tatchell’s “wife”. News to my real wife.

And to Tatchell.

He subsequently denounced me as a “racist” – a poignant moment indeed. With many other antiapartheid activists I had been thrilled at Mugabe’s 1980 landslide win in the country’s first democratic election, after generations of oppressive white-minority rule.

Yet, over the past 10 years especially, Mugabe has savagely prostituted the freedom struggle he once led so ably. With murder, torture, maiming and violent intimidation, he has copied the very techniques of terror used against him and his comrades in that struggle. Once imprisoned, now he imprisons his opponents.

Zimbabwe was once the jewel in Africa’s crown, a beautiful and hospitable land to visit, with the highest standards of education in Africa, good infrastructure and a strong and growing economy.

Yet, these past 10 years, Mugabe has all but destroyed it, turning a booming agricultural sector – a breadbasket for not just his people but surrounding nations too – into a wasteland, with starvation widespread.

Deploying the convenient rhetoric of anticolonialism to force white farmers off their land, he deprived in each case an average of 100 black workers of their jobs and homes, handing over farms to incompetent cronies. With corruption institutionalised and the economy in freefall, inflation has surged and the currency has collapsed.

In this election campaign he has ordered his thugs to murder, to beat, to rape and to starve his opponents. Independent monitors have been abducted and “disappeared”. Last week Mugabe declared “war” on anyone daring to vote against him. African governments have, for the first time, denounced the process, declaring that the elections cannot be free or fair.

Though embarrassed by Mugabe, neighbouring leaders have until now deferred to him as a heroic liberation leader.

Eight years ago I tried to disabuse some of my Foreign Office officials of the notion that Mugabe was susceptible to diplomacy when it was clear to me he wasn’t. I also disagreed with friends in southern African governments, especially my former antiapartheid colleague Thabo Mbeki, whose foreign minister denounced me in a leaked letter to the foreign secretary Robin Cook.

For me the arguments deployed by Mugabe’s South African apologists evoked bittersweet memories from the 1960s to 1980s: Zimbabwe’s “problems” are an “internal matter” and there should be no “outside interference”. European criticism of Mugabe is tantamount to “colonialism” or even “racism”.

Similar specious points were thrown at us in the antiapartheid movement. The millions of black Zimbabweans living or dying under tyranny are crying out for the support that black South Africans got in their grim decades of oppression.

After a colossal failure of diplomacy – by southern Africa, Europe, the United Nations, the Commonwealth – the international community must now act at last, decisively.

This is no time for a pusillanimous pretence that the re-run election amid such carnage and mayhem can be a solution. Friday’s election can only proceed with more deaths and maimings of Mugabe’s opponents. Having lost the unusually free and fair first round in March, Mugabe and his ruling clique were never going to risk a second defeat. They are determined to steal it.

A united international community must insist it is cancelled. Anything else will be a complete travesty covered in blood. The results of the first round should be respected, with the clear winner, the MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, installed as the president of a government of national unity. It could include Mugabe’s former finance minister and breakaway presidential candidate Simba Makoni, as well as Zanu-PF elements.

Mugabe and his elite should either be given international guarantees of immunity as they exit office, or be offered a safe passage if they wish. Since the state and security apparatus is indistinguishable from Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, that is the only way to ensure a violence-free transfer of power. Even then, African peacekeepers may have to police the transition, as the army chiefs may mount a coup.

South Africa should threaten to pull the plug on his energy supply, and his African neighbours refuse to recognise him any more. The West should offer an emergency aid and reconstruction programme to a new government, including for land reform.

Mugabe now needs to be presented with the only language he has ever understood: an uncompromising insistence that he has no alternative but to obey the democratic will of his people and go.