Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe will participate in the European Union-Africa summit in Brussels at the beginning of April, as the EU’s travel ban does not prevent him for taking part in international gatherings.
This poses something of a problem for David Cameron, should he attend and potentially meet Mugabe, or should he boycott? The Foreign Office has released a statement saying that it disapproves of the EU invitation to Mugabe, adding that “it was agreed in return for the renewal of EU sanctions on him which are due to expire at the end of this month”.
Former prime minister Gordon Brown boycotted a similar EU-Africa meeting in Lisbon in 2007, because Mugabe was invited. Kate Hoey, the Labour MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Zimbabwe has called on Cameron to emulate this example.
There is also likely to be pressure on Cameron from inside the Conservative government to boycott the summit. In 2007, current foreign secretary William Hague said that inviting Mugabe was “a shameful episode for Europe that President Mugabe is to be feted in Lisbon. Mugabe should not go home without being made to feel deeply uncomfortable and those who welcome him should not go home without feeling ashamed”.
But Cameron should resist pressure from in and outside government to stay away from the summit. It would be hypocritical to boycott because of Mugabe’s presence and yet say nothing about the participation of Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta, who is accused by the International Criminal Court of orchestrating post election violence in 2007-8 in which more than 1,000 people were killed. Other likely attendees, such as Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos, Equatorial Guinea leader Teodoro Obiang, Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh and Swaziland’s King Mwati III, to mention a few, are hardly paragons of human rights protection either. The more the UK unevenly interferes in the affairs of African states in the name of advancing human rights, the more it undermines the advance of the human rights doctrine in Africa.
It has been evident for some years now that part of the UK policy on Zimbabwe was based on the belief that Mugabe would lose in the 2013 elections. So engrained was this belief in the UK’s Harare mission that when Mugabe won, diplomats there were apparently thrown into a state of disarray. At the same time, the Zimbabwean opposition, which the UK favoured, is now demoralised, deeply divided over Morgan Tsvangirai’s suitability as leader and is financially bankrupt.
Another dimension to Britain’s stance towards on Zimbabwe has been the conviction that Mugabe will soon die, thereby resolving the diplomatic conflict. However, this belief and UK media speculation that the Zimbabwean president’s health is failing are misleading. I followed Mugabe closely throughout his 2013 presidential election campaign and found him to be healthier than is expected of a man who turns 90 years old this month. When Mugabe eventually leaves office, he will ensure that his successor is a politician from his Zanu-PF party, who will not reverse most of his policies. There will be more continuity than change, long after Mugabe has left power.
Moreover, Mugabe has not lost control of his party or the Zimbabwean military. He remains the ultimate authority, which has been evident during those occasions that I have observed him at close range or interviewed and interacted with the military generals that some UK commentators say now control Mugabe.
I have spent part of the past two years interviewing British politicians as part of my research, and despite public statements to the contrary, many in the UK government are tired of the conflict with Mugabe, which has undermined commercial, historical and cultural ties between Zimbabwe and the UK.
In 2012, New Labour’s former Africa minister, Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, told me in an interview: “I always felt that if the Labour government ever got around to negotiating with Mugabe, it needed to get a Tory to do it. So when the Tories took office in 2010, I saw an opportunity for change in Britain’s relationship with Zimbabwe.” He said that Mugabe himself was also more open to negotiating with the Conservatives, and had told a colleague, privately, after Labour left the government, that “it looks like I can do business with Britain again”. Clearly, Mugabe is also fatigued by the conflict with Britain and seeks rapprochement.
Cameron must be pragmatic and attend the EU-Africa summit in April because it is an opportunity for the UK to demonstrate its commitment, as part of the EU, to genuine partnership and co-operation with Africa. Engaging Mugabe is also the only way the UK can have constructive influence in Zimbabwe and bring to an end a detrimental diplomatic conflict which many politicians on both sides no longer have the stomach for.
Blessing-Miles Tendi teaches African politics in the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development and is the author of Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: Politics, Intellectuals and the Media