Diplomatic Pouch / September 6, 2016
By Larry Luxner
As bankrupt Zimbabwe descends into its worst political violence in almost a decade, a former diplomat who used to be based there puts the blame squarely at the feet of one of Africa’s longest-serving dictators, 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe.
“He’s a really bad guy,” says Tom McDonald, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe from 1997 to 2001 during the Clinton administration.
McDonald ought to know. While posted to Harare, he met with Mugabe no less than 25 times — more than some members of Mugabe’s own cabinet.
“We roundly criticized him when I was there, for everything from having tortured journalists to the farm invasions that were meant only to help his cohorts,” McDonald recalled. “We had quite a row more than once on the issues. When I saw him, it was not around friendship. He is an evil dictator.”
McDonald, now a partner at the D.C. law firm of BakerHostetler, spoke with the Diplomatic Pouch as reports emerged of violent anti-government demonstrations in Harare, the capital. On Aug. 31, the Financial Times reported that “people who have fled the country in fear of their lives describe witnessing police brutality and severe hunger. One calls it a war zone. An activist says people are now ‘willing to sacrifice their lives’ for electoral reform.”
In late August, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and former Vice President Joice Mujuru led a peaceful march of 200 supporters that was violently broken up by Zimbabwean police using tear gas, water cannons and batons.
Mugabe, who’s ruled Zimbabwe ever since its independence in 1980, has said he intends to stay in power until he turns 100. But renewed questions about his physical and mental health have sparked a succession fight among Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, First Lady Grace Mugabe and Mujuru that McDonald predicts “will be extremely ugly and possibly bloody.”
Ammon Mutembwa, Zimbabwe’s current ambassador in Washington, could not be reached for comment. But his predecessor in Washington, Machivenyika Mapuranga — who served from 2005 to 2014 — told The Washington Diplomat in a May 2007 cover profile that Mugabe has long been the victim of a vicious smear campaign by racist Western media because he righted a historic wrong by taking away land from wealthy white farmers and redistributing it to landless black peasants.
“We have the greatest record of human rights in Africa because our human rights are not just about the right to speak, but the right to own one’s land,” the former envoy told us at the time. “I have tremendous, profound respect for Robert Mugabe, the great freedom-fighter. He is a man who cherishes freedom and the dignity of his people, and he wants Africans to control their own natural resources.”
Nonsense, says McDonald.
“The Mugabe government is a bad government. They lie and obfuscate, the same they did when I was there,” he told us. “Land reform was desperately needed because the whites stole land and this needed to be rectified. But Mugabe had no interest in justice.”
Half a year before McDonald’s November 1997 arrival in Zimbabwe, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a visit to the country to promote microbusinesses for women. And as ambassador, McDonald says he’s most proud of the work the United States did helping to fight HIV-AIDS by opening 13 clinics throughout Zimbabwe.
McDonald, whose tenure in Harare coincided with al-Qaeda’s 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, still travels to Africa and the Middle East as member of the Council on American Ambassadors, the Council of Foreign Relations and the Corporate Council on Africa. He also sits on the board of the International Foundation of Electoral Systems, an NGO that supports elections in developing countries globally.
“As long as Mugabe has a pulse, we shouldn’t be counting him out – he may still have several more years of fight in him,” said the ex-diplomat. “However, his frailty is obvious. This is a different person than the president I argued with on a regular basis.”
McDonald said Zimbabwe “may now be close to a tipping point, not dissimilar to what I was dealing with in 2000. My friend Morgan [Tsvangirai] has aligned himself with Joice Mujuru — the vice-president who Mugabe kicked out of office. Morgan and Joice have joined forces and could be quite powerful going forward.”
He added: “Grace Mugabe is the wild card. While not as smart and clever as her husband, she is extremely ruthless and power-hungry — and a crook and bad person in her own right.”
Yet it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on in Zimbabwe since reporters are forbidden from doing their work in the current state of paranoia.
“Foreign journalists go there under cover. They cross at a land border because they’re not going to come in through Harare International Airport,” said McDonald, noting that authorities closely monitor lists of passengers arriving from Johannesburg and other cities. “More likely than not, anybody declaring himself a journalist will be turned away and put back on a flight home.”