I gave an interview this morning to the Voice of Africa radio station (www.voiceofafricaradio.com) which broadcasts in London. As I told VOAR's breakfast show host, Sir Richie, I think that British PM Gordon Brown has come out badly in the stand-off with Robert Mugabe over the latter's invitation to attend the Lisbon summit later in the year. German chancellor Angela Merkel who is off on a tour of Africa, has indicated the summit must not be held back because of Mugabe's possible attendance. The suggestion of a fissure within the EU over this matter is something the Mugabe government must be feeling quite chuffed about.
It also deals a blow to EU efforts to foster a common foreign policy. It appears now that Brown had struck out on his own without having fully consulted his European counterparts, who are overwhelmingly of the view that trade relations between two continents must not be sabotaged by differences with one country. My own view is that the PM should never have taken this position in the first place. Rather, the proposal to have Zimbabwe discussed as a human rights issue at the summit should have been marketed as the quid pro quo that secured Mugabe's attendance. The African Union would have had no reason in principle to boycott the summit, and Mugabe would have felt under pressure to forego the the trip to Lisbon of his own volition.
Britain's symbolic gestures and moral hectoring of the Mugabe government, which were the mainstay of Tony Blair's policy towards Zimbabwe, have not produced any positive result in over 10 years. If at all, they have been used by Mugabe to criticize British foreign policy as influenced by colonial hubris and kept his African peers staunchly buffering him from western condemnation. A new approach, one inspired by diplomatic engagement, starting perhaps at a lower level, would have been more effective in stalling repression in Zimbabwe and ending the crisis. Through the agency of South Africa, Britain could have arranged contact with both Zanu PF and the MDC and underwritten any agreement between the two political foes with pledges for economic assistance whilst avoiding the temptation to revert to megaphone diplomacy against the Mugabe government. The reason why this approach would have produced real results on the ground is that despite the rhetoric and ideological posturing, the Mugabe government is keen to be on good terms with Britain and the west once more in order to staunch the economic recession which, if it continues unabated, will inevitably torpedo it from power. As reported on the Zimonlione website recently, the Look East policy is not producing any meaningful economic dividends with the country having suffered a massive trade deficit with China in the first half of this year (http://www.zimonline.co.za/Article.aspx?ArticleId=2092.).
The appearance of taking a moral stand against the Mugabe government plays well with the British public but sadly, it does absolutely nothing to end the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe nor has it weakened Mugabe's dictatorship. The evidence available shows that Zimbabwe is in a worse position today than it was when New Labour came to power over ten years ago. It is not surprising therefore that there is now a new thinking emerging on the Zimbabwe question which favours giving dialogue a chance. The respected think-tank, International Crisis Group (ICG) has in its latest report on Zimbabwe called on the international community to support current mediation efforts on Zimbabwe being carried out by South African president Thabo Mbeki (http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=5083&l=1).
The Commonwealth has also weighed in on the EU-Africa summit in favour of Mugabe's attendance if only to facilitate dialogue on how to end the crisis in his country (http://uk.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUKL1159172820070912).
It is instructive to note that the Commomwealth secretary, Don Mckinnon, who was previously in favour of Zimbabwe's isolation until it reformed, has now come round to the idea of opening up pathways for a negotiated disposition of this long-standing crisis. If Brown continues with the same policy that has failed to produce positive results for New Labour in Zimbabwe since it came to power, there is no doubt that he will certainly meet with failure. The opportunities for British influence on the outcome of the Zimbabwe crisis lie in engagement and not continued isolation. There is incontrovertible evidence on the ground to suggest that the endgame for Mugabe is here and for Britain, it's an opportune time to suss out the potential leaders of a post-Mugabe dispensation.