Experts back government’s “measured approach” to Zimbabwe

Experts have backed the Government's approach to dealing with Zimbabwe, though Tory MP Nigel Evans wants Britain to stop "pussyfooting" around with Mugabe.

Our guest writer is Elliott Fox

Jacob Zuma’s state visit to the UK finished on Friday evening and, rather than the World Cup, it was the future of diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe which stood out as the key issue from the three-day trip.

While Mr Zuma and the prime minister debated the best path to aiding the recovery of Zimbabwe’s fragile economy, Tory MP Nigel Evans accused the UK government of “pussyfooting” while handing out aid to Robert Mugabe. A Zimbabwe expert, however, defended the UK’s measured approach “for the sake of ordinary people in Zimbabwe”.

The president of South Africa has been the key mediator between Robert Mugabe’s regime and the international community. He pleaded for the easing of EU sanctions against Zimbabwe, saying they prevented the fragile coalition between President Robert Mugabe and his opponent, prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, from succeeding.

Gordon Brown, though, stood firm and restated the conditions under which sanctions might be lifted:

“We must see movement from what is a unity, transitional government, to free and fair elections.”

While defending the sanctions, however, the government has adopted a ‘softly softly’ approach to its diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe. It gives about £60 million in aid to the country, a bit more than half going to AIDS-related health programmes.

Furthermore, development minister Gareth Thomas announced during a hearing of the international development committee last week that the department for international development (DFID) was open to increase the share of the aid budget going directly to government ministries if it could help support the stability of the transition government.

He said:

“Our support is designed to enable the Office of the Prime Minister to carry out the sort of normal functions that a head of state’s office would, including oversight of the budget, making sure that the different ministries are following through on the government’s agreed work plan, and helping to resolve disputes between government departments were they to happen.”

Unconvinced by the approach, committee member Nigel Evans confronted the minister on a new law in Zimbabwe which requires big businesses to be at least 51 per cent black owned. The pair clashed over whether it is the role of the UK government to call the policy racist.

When the minister said the government should avoid “explosive language”, Nigel Evans insisted:

“But clearly it is a racist policy. If any other country did this sort of thing, we would be banging the table and saying ‘This is racist’.

Thomas replied:

“I appreciate, Mr Evans, that you might want me to use particular phrases to describe a particular set of policies but, with respect, I am not going to do that.

“The broad message is that there has been progress in terms of the economy. We do not want that progress put at risk.”

Speaking to Left Foot Forward afterwards, Evans reiterated his message that the government was wasting its time:

“Diplomacy is lost on Mugabe, and this sort of pussyfooting sends all the wrong signals to other countries contemplating the same thing.”

In contrast, Professor Stephen Chan, an expert on Zimbabwe and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), defended the government’s attitude, saying it was the only viable diplomatic route:

“President Zuma was in town pleading for exactly this kind of measured, non-condemnatory approach. Whether we like it or not, the days of rhetoric are over in this case, and a grubby compromise is important for the sake of ordinary people in Zimbabwe.

“Our moral and political fights have been over and above their suffering – and this in itself might be termed immoral and racist.”

Meanwhile, Mugabe used a press conference ahead of Zuma’s visit to announce he will be endorsing David Cameron at the general election.

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