Zimbabwe set a new record on 1 July when the British parliament devoted five long hours to debate the goings-on in President Mugabe's country. No other African nation has attracted such a long debate in the House. And the conclusion: "Three things that we are not going to do," said the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, who led the debate. "First, we will not impose economic sanctions on Zimbabwe; second, we will not send in troops; and third, we will not play Mugabe's game by making this a 'UK versus Zimbabwe' issue." It was riveting stuff. Osei Boateng reports.
Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government would want the world to believe that Britain's extraordinary interest in Zimbabwe is only because of the "historical ties" between the two countries and nothing to do with "kith and kin politics". But as much as they try, they still cannot convince the sceptics that their interest is driven only by "genuine feelings for the suffering people" of Zimbabwe.
"Historical ties" were two words in high demand on 1 July, and African countries, especially Zimbabwe's neighbours (particularly South Africa) came in for a lot of harsh words for not cooperating with Britain and its allies to crush Mugabe's "evil tyranny".
By criticising the African non-cooperation, London is deliberating ignoring the fact that this generation of Africans and their leaders do have a long memory. For example, they are not impressed that because of the interests of the 4,500 white farmers (who lost some of their land in the redistribution programme), Britain and its powerful allies are prepared to see 13 million Africans suffer in Zimbabwe, by blockading the economy, making it implode and then blaming all the repercussions on Mugabe's government.
Though Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, who led the debate in the House of Commons in the absence of Tony Blair, announced that Britain "will not impose economic sanctions on Zimbabwe", he was being economical with the truth, because de facto economic sanctions have been imposed on Zimbabwe by Britain and its allies since 2001 (see NA, Dec 2003, p46-48).
The sanctions--all done on the quiet--began to bite in late 2001 after President George Bush had signed the "Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act" into law, which, in one fell swoop, blocked the country's access to international finance, trade and investment.
When President Mugabe talked about the sanctions in a major interview on Sky News on 25 May (his first British TV interview in four years), the interviewer, Stuart Ramsay, was totally surprised. "The sanctions are mainly imposed upon individual members of the government?" Ramsay said.
"No, no, no, no," Mugabe told him. "This is a game where you don't understand your prime minister. What did he do? He said 'personal' sanctions because that was the more acceptable form of sanctions to some of his allies, but behind us he says 'no to countries, stop your aid and so on, don't invest'. And so we have had real sanctions, economic sanctions."
Back home in Zimbabwe, the fortunes of the opposition MDC party (which Britain and its allies support) have been declining in recent months, while the confidence of the ruling ZANU-PF party has been increasing. It has won four by-elections since late last year (including winning its first parliamentary seat in the Harare metropolis. All 19 seats in the capital were held by the MDC). The beleaguered economy is slowly recovering and an anti-corruption campaign by the government has been popularly received.
Against this background, the House of Commons debate appeared to be an attempt to put the dampers on. Jack Straw said in his opening speech: "A return to democracy and policies which do not harm the poor is the best hope for the future of Zimbabwe ... We will do all we can to bring about such a change."
Straw reassured the House: "Along with the rest of the international community, we are offering political and practical support to those who oppose the regime and are working for the return of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. …