Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. We are concerned. That is why you are here.
  (Mr Keane) Indeed, but it is some time since the election.

Mr Olner

  21. Does Mugabe really care about the Commonwealth? Has the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth made any difference to him? Does Mugabe really bother about that?
  (Mr Dowden) He does care about the Commonwealth. It gave him a lot of support in the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. I think he rates the opinion of his peers and therefore that actually hurt it. The suspension was quite a shock as well. It does not materially hurt him and it also offers him a way out, but I do think he was surprised at the suspension.

  22. Do you think the suspension was the right level of measure to take rather than expulsion?
  (Mr Dowden) Indeed. I think they could have gone further, but that one-year suspension sends the message and leaves the door open and the Commonwealth is preparing to send a delegation down there to ask where they go from here.

  23. Is that then not another trigger for what you were just saying? You really ought to talk to your news editors about things disappearing out of the headlines.
  (Mr Keane) Oh, I do.

  24. Good; I am pleased to hear that. Given what you said about Mugabe's views on the suspension from the Commonwealth, does that give a real lever? I would take it that once the year's suspension is finished and things have not happened that suspension can either be transferred to an expulsion or the suspension carried on.
  (Mr Keane) They were wise to leave the door open to an extent. If you expel, then you immediately lose any power to mediate in the situation. One has to be realistic, faced with a government which has no immediate apparent interest in any kind of democratic negotiation, which feels itself profoundly threatened and recognises that there are many people in the government circle who might find themselves subject to trial for abuse of human rights, for corruption, if there were a democratic transition. In other words, they have very little interest, in fact no interest, in being part of any kind of democratic negotiation. That is the fundamental crisis we face.

Mr Chidgey

  25. I should like to ask you both some questions about British policy towards Zimbabwe and just preface it by recalling that Baroness Amos, late last year, said that we have a limited influence in Zimbabwe, which is clearly the case. The only thing she did say perhaps of any relevance was that she thought we had a minimal degree of influence with the Government of Zimbabwe itself in that they would wish us to support through resource flows, ministerial language here, "the land reform programme in Zimbabwe". She has not really said much more since then. To what extent can Britain now hope to influence the government of Mugabe with respect to land reform, human rights or any other issues?
  (Mr Keane) Very little; very little. Sorry to give you such a short answer. One important thing was said to me by a catholic archbishop who is a pronounced critic of the government, the Archbishop of Bulawayo, when I put to him that very point that the British Government are hardly the most favoured nation in terms of their relationship with Zimbabwe; they are barracked for being colonialist. He said that we have to speak out because afterwards we must be able to stand up and look people in the eye and say that we tried. That may not achieve a great deal in practical terms, but in terms of this country's moral record it is important. I am not sure that we did that in the past. One has to take the history into account.

  26. That is the dichotomy for me. The point is that it is right to say that the central allegation in your Panorama broadcast was that we had let the people of Zimbabwe down in the 1980s by failing to intervene against President Mugabe, which therefore begs the question: what could we now do? That is the question. I do not know whether you can add to that.
  (Mr Keane) The central allegation was not so much that we failed to intervene as that we failed to say anything.

  27. In your article, Mr Dowden, in The Observer in February, you said that we in the UK should not fall for what you call "the guilt trap" by accepting responsibility for the present situation in Zimbabwe and that Africa must take control of its own destiny. Does that mean that you feel we should stand aside from the situation in Zimbabwe?
  (Mr Dowden) There were two elements here. One was that it seemed to me that trying to threaten Mugabe was like pointing a gun at a man who was threatening to commit suicide and saying "Put that gun down or I'll shoot you". You are dealing with a leader who is quite prepared to ruin the economy of his country to stay in power. The second thing is that Britain in a sense is the last country to speak out because Mugabe very successfully turned everything Britain did back in its face by playing the colonial card. Therefore the stick just broke and it actually served him very nicely. Every time Britain spoke out, he said "There they are, at it again, playing the colonial card". It is quite difficult. Britain should do things but working through the EU, through the broader associations and putting on pressure that way rather than trying to take Mugabe head on.

  28. On that very point, is there any, and if there is what assistance do you think Britain should give to the NEPAD countries who may be able to exert more influence on President Mugabe than external countries or organisations or indeed the United Kingdom?
  (Mr Dowden) NEPAD seems to me to be the lever. You say that the NEPAD signs everybody up to good governance. You ask what this means in this case? Then you get an agreement on what it actually means in the case of Zimbabwe and use that as a lever. Yes, it is African solutions to African problems, which is now a slightly well-worn thing, but it is actually getting African leaders to sign up to that. The other thing I would say is keep repeating that we are prepared to deal with the land issue. That is real. Mugabe has used it as a tool, but it is also a very real issue and Britain has failed to deal with it in the past.
  (Mr Keane) The other critical element is our bilateral relationship with South Africa. One of the critical turning points in the last few months was Thabo Mbeki's decision to go with the Commonwealth decision on suspension. It was critical. It showed that we can apply leverage. Substantial pressure was put on Thabo Mbeki by the British Government and a continuation of that dialogue with Mbeki, based around NEPAD and based around the kind of assistance that they can expect to receive, but good governance must be part of the deal as far as Britain is concerned if those funds are going to flow.

Sir John Stanley

  29. Can we take the period from the start of the compulsory land takeovers up to the conclusion of the general election? May I ask you both whether you think, with the benefit of hindsight and recognising, as you both absolutely rightly pointed out, the substantial weakness of the British bilateral position vis-a"-vis the Mugabe government, that the British Government did all they reasonably could in trying to exert the maximum degree of influence and pressure on the Mugabe regime to moderate the land acquisition, the violence, the rigging of the election in the way that was done through legislation? Do you think the British Government could have done more through the South African Government, through the EU, through sanctions, through the Commonwealth, or do you think the British Government did all it reasonably could in the circumstances?
  (Mr Keane) One of the problems has been, and we in the media must take this on the chin as well, that we were seen to act and seen to be concerned when it was white farmers who were being attacked. Thus it became very easy for Robert Mugabe to portray this as a colonialist intervention by the British Government and to portray Western media interest as ethnocentric. In other words we cared, in Mugabe's own famous phrase, because they were our kith and kin. There was an unfortunate lack of public profile given both by our politicians and by the media to the true victims of what was happening and they are the Zimbabwean people on impoverished smallholdings, peasants who have to walk for miles to get maize, the people I talked to you about earlier. We mis-presented our concern.
  (Mr Dowden) The £35 million which Robin Cook boasted was ready to be given for land reform, when you actually read the document about the British aid for Zimbabwe, was so hedged around with other conditionalities and it was basically for land reform, it was not to buy out white farmers. It was continually written about in the media as going to be used to buy out white farmers and it was not. The message from DFID was "Over Clare Short's dead body is that going to be given to white farmers. It is for poverty reduction". It may then be part of a package which helps new settlers, new people to set up smallholdings, but it is not going to buy white owned land. The Zimbabweans saw through that, the government saw through that straight away. That undermined Britain's position quite badly, plus the attempt to take it on on a bilateral basis instead of on a multilateral basis, which was a big mistake.

  30. On the specific issue of sanctions, how do you feel the British Government did in playing the sanctions issue? Do you think you could have done more to get the EU to adopt a much tougher sanction policy earlier on? Do you think the British Government could have done more to do this in front of the United Nations or in front of the Commonwealth, or do you feel that the British Government did all it reasonably could?
  (Mr Dowden) They led the call for sanctions and that was probably the right thing. The timing was wrong, so we had this ridiculous situation where they imposed sanctions and at the same time had observers down there, then pulled the observers out and it ended as a bit of a mess. The timing of things played again into Mugabe's hands. He held the initiative all the way through, so in the end the sanctions were imposed on him and then the EU observers walked away. The pressure could have been much tighter. I would say now: extend the sanctions to families and other people in the regime and deepen them and broaden them.
  (Mr Keane) Having lived and worked in South Africa during the whole period of sanctions, for sanctions to work they need to be targeted at the core group who are causing you the problem. Blanket sanctions do not work. Smart sanctions are a good idea, but they need to be extended because there are a great many people who have profited in a most terrible way from the misery of the Zimbabwean people and they need to start to feel pain.

  31. The British Government had an extraordinary difficulty to mobilise any sort of international pressure let alone agreement to introduce smart sanctions, did they not? Could the British Government have done more?
  (Mr Keane) It is a question of starting earlier. If you go back to the issue of Matabeleland and look at the records from that time, we went through the same problem. We did not try to mobilise the Commonwealth; absolutely no effort to mobilise the Commonwealth or to try to get a common position going at the EU. We did nothing. At least in this current crisis we are being seen to do something.

  32. Looking ahead now, what do you feel should be the key objective for British policy now post the election?
  (Mr Dowden) To work through the Commonwealth, the EU, but most particularly with the South Africans and SADC to try to find a way forward. What I gather is that there is not a great deal of pressure coming from the South Africans at the moment, but it is becoming catastrophic in Zimbabwe. It is going on downhill rapidly. I gather that the last few farms are now being seized and people being told to leave and nobody is planting anything for next year. It is going to get much, much worse. I do not think it is just going to go quiet. I think it will all blow up again.
  (Mr Keane) We need a sense of urgency and I see no sign of that. I do not come here to barrack the politicians. It is all of us in this establishment of politicians and journalists. There is an absence of urgency. The notion that somehow when the election is over, the problem goes into abeyance is ludicrous. It is getting worse every day. In Matabeleland, one of the things which was frighteningly familiar to me was the appearance of trained government militias who are standing by ready to wreak havoc, ready to be unleashed on the population. I saw that in another African country. I saw that in Rwanda. Do not ever underestimate the lengths to which politicians who want to stay in power will go to hold onto their power, particularly in a country which is facing the kind of economic and political meltdown that Zimbabwe is facing.

  33. How would you want to see the British Government inject a real sense of urgency into this issue?
  (Mr Keane) We have to do it through the EU and through the Commonwealth. Quite how one puts that into action I am not sure.
  (Mr Dowden) The G8 summit is coming up and the Africans will hope to be there with NEPAD and have it discussed. The message should remain that Zimbabwe is still an urgent issue and if there is this peer review in Africa for governments which are failing, then Zimbabwe is the one you should be looking at. Keep up that pressure. Do not say, "Unless you deal with it, no NEPAD", as I think the Americans have spelled out in rather a crude way, but keep linking NEPAD to Zimbabwe. Not just Zimbabwe because there is an inconsistency here. We have had appalling elections in Zambia, Madagascar and Congo at almost the same time which got no coverage and nobody really paid much attention to. Try to broaden that out.

Mr Chidgey

  34. I take on board everything you say and the need for urgency, but it is a bit of a Catch-22 situation, is it not? On the one hand the UK Government is criticised if it does take a lead because it falls into the trap of being painted as the ex-colonial monster. If it does not take the lead, the urgency is not recognised and you have also said that it is for other African countries to get involved and engaged.
  (Mr Keane) Sometimes they need a nudge and if you look at what happened around the issue of suspension from the Commonwealth, the nudge was seen to work. It worked. The bilateral pressure brought to bear on South Africa particularly worked.

  Andrew Mackinlay: It does seem to me listening to you both that we are almost dancing on the head of a pin as regards the stewardship of the policy of the British Government. We are talking about real fine-tuning. Basically they have very little in their armoury to influence this. I would never hesitate to take a pop at the Foreign Office, but it does seem to me in this area—and I can only put it in the form of a statement rather than a question—that they really are using what skills they have. They will make one or two minor errors of judgement. You have acknowledged the fickle nature of your own profession, journalism, and also the backdrop for my thoughts was that in a league table of wrongs in Africa, it probably is not right at the very top. We have a dilemma here in the United Kingdom. Just to complete my thoughts, a lot of this is history. I am ashamed to say that I was unaware of the Matabeleland outrages. In the 1980s people were queuing up to be photographed with Robert Mugabe. It is the usual fawning, obsequious nature of people is it not? You could never criticise the guy. The journalistic profession did not draw attention to it and governments acquiesced by their silence in this. I really do invite you gentlemen, if there is anything we can use to put leverage on the government, any substantive criticism, I do think that we ought to know it and we ought to acknowledge it. It does seem to me uniquely in this Committee that they have been pretty good in this. Bearing in mind, Mr Keane, looking at your record, that you are very keen and dedicated as regards Africa, you love Africa, you were very supportive of Mr Blair's initiative on Sierra Leone and criticised this Committee for probing him on it, I remember ... I am just acknowledging your enthusiasm. This British Government have tried to be involved and engaged, gutsy you might say, in trying to influence the regime. All of us are searching for any point where we could say the British Government can try harder, can fine-tune on this. There seems to me to be very, very little this afternoon in this court, as it were, where we could really press them more.


  35. You have the right of reply.
  (Mr Keane) I am flattered that the chip wrapping of many months ago has been remembered. I would simply say this. We are faced with the potential for a catastrophe, which is going to explode in our faces and you are going to be asked for answers. Do you recognise the urgency of the crisis? Do we have a policy to deal with it?

Andrew Mackinlay

  36. What can we do? What do you suggest we do? I am not trying to be facetious?
  (Mr Keane) I come back to what Richard said and that is that the only thing we can do is put on pressure through the EU and through the Commonwealth. The critical partner in this is Thabo Mbeki in South Africa. He is a critical partner. As I said earlier, you really need to take this on board. When we put real pressure on Thabo Mbeki, and I am not party to the private discussions which were held here in London, but I understand they were very robust, very robust, and they had an effect. That is our route.

Mr Pope

  37. We all accept that in terms of direct influence on Zimbabwe the UK has the least influence of any country, but arguably South Africa has the greatest influence. I just want an assessment of how much notice Mugabe takes of Mbeki. If the answer to that is a lot, what more could South Africa be doing to influence events in Zimbabwe?
  (Mr Dowden) It is a very difficult relationship because the ANC was actually closer to ZAPU than ZANU and the PAC was ZANU-PF. They come from a completely different tradition of liberation movements. Secondly, Thabo Mbeki is younger than Mugabe, so there is that problem. Even with the best will in the world Mbeki knows that he can create the very catastrophe he is trying to prevent if he applies the wrong pressure at the wrong time. It is not easy for South Africa to sort out, but I have a very strong impression, following the briefings after the Commonwealth decision, that there is, even within the South African Government, quite a lot of sympathy for Mugabe and a feeling that we have to protect this guy from outside imperialism. I personally was frankly appalled to hear this. It was very depressing that some of the people around Mbeki were taking the line that Britain has got obsessed with Zimbabwe and Mugabe and it is all to do with white owned land and so on. It was very distressing to find that, although they had conceded the suspension, I could not see any sign of any pressure from South Africa since then.
  (Mr Keane) That is not just the people around Mbeki. I spent a lot of time in South Africa after the election period and just speaking to friends of mine, black South Africans who advanced to me the view that those whites have to get used to living in the kind of Africa they have lived in. The whites cannot be protected. You try to make the point that this is not about whites, this is about good governance, it is about rights and standards by which the whole population should live, it is about simple democratic freedoms; it is also about the right to eat which the catastrophic mismanagement of the country has taken away from people. I have to say a lot of the time my arguments seemed to fall on deaf ears. It goes well beyond the idea that it is simply part of the South African elite, which is worrying.

  38. I am interested in this line. It seemed clear that Mbeki was reluctant to take any action against Zimbabwe. You referred to the fact that there have been robust bilateral talks between the UK and South Africa over this. I could not really fathom it out. I wondered whether some of this was liberation movements and nostalgia for that, even accepting that they come from different wings of the liberation movement, or whether or not it was a fear in the wider South African society and outside the political elites there was support for this. You suggested, Fergal, that the whites have just got to get used to this and that Mbeki is in some way constrained by that.
  (Mr Keane) There is a difference. There is definitely a view in wider South African society that whites have had it too good for too long, that they have been protected from the realities of Africa, that they lack any humility and that they continue to be arrogant. That is a very, very widespread view. However, I do not think there is any sense in which there is a mass movement in South Africa which would take to the streets against Thabo Mbeki if he took tough action on Zimbabwe. That is not his constraint. His primary fear is a meltdown in Zimbabwe which sends hundreds of thousands of people across his border and provokes regional destabilisation. That is his critical fear. He is mindful and he is certainly sympathetic personally to an African leader who is being criticised by foreigners, because he is getting some experience of it himself.

Andrew Mackinlay

  39. Robert Mugabe looks remarkably robust for 80 years, but it is possible that through natural causes we could suddenly have a vacancy. What would be the situation if Mugabe did disappear, die naturally, suddenly? Would there be a void, a vacancy? Would there be people we could do business with? Who are the lieutenants? I would hope that the Foreign Office has some contingency plans which could switch in, but it could happen, could it not?
  (Mr Dowden) The Vice-Presidents are both older than Mr Mugabe. We are looking at two other people who are both former security chiefs who do not have a very great record on human rights. I do not know, is the answer. If something happened, I do not know what would happen next.
  (Mr Keane) I would not automatically assume a change for the better, simply because the key people who control access to wealth in particular are afraid, if there were a change of regime, of facing some kind of justice, be that locally or international justice.

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