Zimbabwe: despite doubts, a warmer tone in London

mark_malloch_brownBritain is edging towards substantively closer political engagement with Zimbabwe's new unity government despite continuing concerns in London about appearing to legitimise President Robert Mugabe. Mark Malloch-Brown, Britain's minister for Africa, is expected to discuss Zimbabwe during a tour of southern African countries this week, when

But officials say a ministerial visit is seen as more possible now than at any time since 2001, when Lady Amos met Mugabe in Harare. Malloch-Brown’s regional visit follows a meeting with Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s prime minister, and Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, its foreign minister, during last month’s inauguration of Jacob Zuma as South Africa’s president. While listing British concerns, Malloch-Brown recognised “areas of progress made by the inclusive government” and stressed Britain’s willingness to help rebuild the country. London’s more positive tone follows initial scepticism that the power-sharing agreement between Mugabe and Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), struck in February after months of bitter post-election wrangling, would endure. Tendai Biti, the country’s finance minister and close Tsvangirai ally, is said to have made a good impression in London in April, and a senior Foreign Office official recently travelled to Harare.

Officials said they were now more hopeful the unity government would succeed but warned that problems remained, notably Mugabe’s unilateral reappointment of Gideon Gono, the discredited central bank governor, in defiance of the MDC. Continuing illegal detentions and farm invasions by Mugabe’s allies are other concerns.”They [British officials] have plenty of reservations. But they don’t want to be seen as spoilers,” a source said. “They don’t want to be thought to be undermining Tsvangirai.” Britain is considering moving beyond humanitarian aid to offer direct political support in, say, constitutional reform and strengthening the rule of law. Such assistance could be channelled through the British embassy in Harare to Tsvangirai’s office, bypassing ministries controlled by Mugabe loyalists. But the pace of re-engagement is hotly debated in Whitehall, with some officials said to be anxious that Mugabe could try to hijack the process and embarrass Downing Street by triumphantly declaring a British climbdown. Those who take a more robust view claim that Dfid, Britain’s international development ministry, is dragging its feet on taking “the next step” towards capacity building. Britain’s shifting stance is driven to some degree by fear of being outflanked by France and other European countries that are showing renewed interest in political and business links with Harare.

Some in London who recall former president Jacques Chirac’s feting of Mugabe in Paris in 2003 say France has a record of exploiting British difficulties over Zimbabwe. Anne-Marie Idrac, the French state secretary for foreign trade, made a surprise visit to Harare last month. In meetings with top ministers she reportedly opened talks on French investment in Zimbabwe’s power sector and other private sector areas. A delegation from the French development agency was also due in Harare. Tsvangirai, whose tour includes high-level meetings in Britain, admitted last month the MDC was struggling to deliver quick reforms due to opposition from elements allied to Mugabe but said that was to be expected in a “marriage of convenience” and that the process of democratisation was irreversible. The attitude of western donors such as Britain was warming up, he said. “There has been some positive engagement with them. They have moved from total disregard of what has happened to scepticism, and now they are saying there is progress, though not sufficient,” Tsvangirai told South Africa’s Star newspaper. “So they all accept there is change taking place and that change must be consolidated. They will eventually open their purses.” Despite such optimism, real change may be desperately slow in coming. As the MDC’s Tendai Biti noted recently, power struggles within Zanu PF over the Mugabe succession may fatally undermine Zimbabwe’s rehabilitation. If the discord continues unchecked, observers say Zanu PF’s December congress may provide not change but a strong dose of deja vu by re-electing Mugabe as party leader for yet another five years.

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