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Monday, 10 February, 2003, 13:45 GMT
Mugabe outfoxes his critics
Robert Mugabe
Mugabe has played his cards skilfully on the world stage

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe must be rubbing his hands with glee.

Less than a year after violence and dirty tricks smoothed his path to re-election, international sanctions are crumbling.

France has a long history of associating with African dictatorships

Moses Mzila Ndlovu, MDC
The European Union is divided over whether to renew a travel ban and assets freeze on Mr Mugabe and his closest associates.

The dithering over whether England should play a Cricket World Cup match in Harare has left the UK Government, and not Mr Mugabe, with egg on its face.

And now the Commonwealth looks set to accept Zimbabwe back into the fold.

Political food aid

So has the situation in Zimbabwe improved over the past 11 months?

Not at all.

In fact, Mr Mugabe's government has committed its worst human rights abuse during this period - the politicisation of food aid at a time when half the population is facing starvation.

Queue for food aid
Zimbabweans must show Zanu-PF cards to get food aid

Those queuing to receive hand-outs across the country must produce membership cards of Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party.

Opposition supporters are told to "get food from Tony Blair".

Mr Mugabe has cleverly turned the old colonial trick of divide and rule to his advantage within international bodies.

He has exploited the long-standing diplomatic rivalry between France and the UK to get an invitation to the Franco-African summit, conveniently scheduled for the day after the 12-month EU travel ban expires.

And key African powers Nigeria and South Africa are lobbying on his behalf within the Commonwealth.

As a result, Zimbabwe's year-long suspension might be allowed to lapse.

Tortured MP

Both France and South Africa say they are pursuing a policy of "constructive engagement" with Zimbabwe.

Nathan Shamuyarira, spokesman for Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, told BBC News Online that dialogue is far more effective than sanctions such as travel bans or expulsion.

Morgan Tsvangirai at Harare High Court
Tsvangirai is fighting to stay out of jail

"You must engage to have influence, whether over human rights or the rule of law," he said.

Nigeria and South Africa have come round to this point of view, which is why they oppose renewing the sanctions, which they agreed to a year ago, he said.

But the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) says engagement has already been tried and failed.

"We are disappointed with those who still hold out hope that a tyrant can reform," says MDC foreign affairs spokesman Moses Mzila Ndlovu.

"The man is moving from bad to worse," he told BBC News Online.

In addition to the political use of food aid, several MDC MPs, as well as the mayor of Harare, have been arrested.

One says he was tortured while in police custody.

Distracted Blair

The MDC's ability to lobby both in Africa and further afield has been hit by the confiscation of the passports of the MDC's two leaders - Morgan Tsvangirai and Welshman Ncube.

They are currently on trial for treason - facing a possible death penalty - and had to surrender their passports when first charged a year ago.

Thabo Mbeki (l) and Robert Mugabe (r)
Mbeki is opposed to extending Commonwealth sanctions

Meanwhile, Mr Mugabe has carefully cultivated new friends and old allies.

"France has a long history of associating with African dictatorships," Mr Ndlovu said.

Nigeria and South Africa seem to have accepted Mr Mugabe's argument that he is still fighting colonialism.

Mr Shamuyarira says that Africa backs Zimbabwe on two key points:

  • That redistributing land from whites to blacks is long overdue;
  • And that Zimbabwe is a sovereign state which should handle its own affairs.
The two African powers were mandated to mediate between the government and the MDC by the Commonwealth but Mr Ndlovu complains bitterly that South African ministers often ignore their requests for meetings when they visit Harare.

Mr Mugabe's main critic on the international scene, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, seems to have been outmanoeuvred.

Or possibly he has just been distracted by the confrontation between the United States and Iraq.

Mr Mugabe would not have survived in power for 23 years without knowing how best to play the cards he has been dealt.

Now, the man who wants to replace him must show that he is up to the task.

But Morgan Tsvangirai has other things on his mind at the moment - trying to save his life at Harare High Court.

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See also:

10 Feb 03 | England
27 Jan 03 | Europe
20 Mar 02 | Africa
24 Jan 03 | Africa
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