Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is in his no-nonsense mood again. His government has just taken an action that is not only daring in its nature but also antagonistic in its impact. It may qualify as eccentric too.
While many countries worldwide (including 20 African countries) have so far recognized the Libyan rebel’s National Transitional Council (NTC) as the legitimate governing body of Libya, Zimbabwe has chosen to reinforce its refusal to go with the grain by taking an unprecedented action to expel Libya’s ambassador (Taher Elmagrahi) from the country.
His crime? For recognizing the rebel NTC as the legitimate government of Libya in place of the Gaddafi one that had posted him to Zimbabwe. He stands out as the first diplomat to suffer for doing what his colleague Libyan diplomats in other countries have done without paying any price!
This is how the expelled Libyan diplomat behaved to bring himself down. As reported by the AFP, he led fellow Libyans in Harare last Wednesday (August 24) in burning portraits of Gaddafi and lowering the green flag, which is synonymous with Gaddafi’s regime. The embassy replaced the flag with that of the anti- Gaddafi rebellion—the red, black and green banner from independence in 1951—only to replace it with the African Union banner on Tuesday (August 30).
Then, Elmagrahi announced that he had thrown his support behind the rebels, saying he had written to Zimbabwe’s Foreign Ministry informing officials of his defection.
“From today, August 24, we follow the Libyan majority, the Libyan people, through our National Transitional Authority,” he told journalists, “We are here representing the Libyan people and not Gaddafi. I am not Gaddafi’s ambassador. I represent the Libyan people.”
But Zimbabwe would have none of that behaviour and moved promptly to expel him. Announcing the expulsion on Tuesday, Simbarashe Mumbengegwi (Zimbabwe’s Foreign Minister), told journalists, “The Libyan ambassador and his staff decided to renounce their allegiance to the government of Colonel Gaddafi. This act deprives the Libyan ambassador and his staff of any diplomatic status in Zimbabwe because Zimbabwe does not recognize the TNC,” according to the AFP.
The seriousness of the Zimbabwean action is even reflected in the ultimatum given the Libyan diplomats. “So it is in this context that the Libyan ambassador and his staff are required to leave Zimbabwe within the next 72 hours.”
But in a separate written statement, Mumbengegwi said Ambassador Taher Elmagrahi and staff would have just 48 hours to leave the country. Officials did not immediately clarify which deadline would apply.
Coming from Mugabe, this kind of hardline action is not strange. The Zimbabwean leader has already carved a niche for himself through his freedom-fighting efforts to be what he has been since 1980 when he took over the management of the country’s affairs from the Ian Smith regime. He has had a checkered relationship with political friends and foes alike, bringing himself into head-on collision with the latter and working closely with the former to deepen his hold on power.
That he has survived so far is not adventitious or unexpected. For a man who has outlasted most of the pioneers of the liberation struggle, there is very little to be daunted by.
Also known for his anti-West rhetoric and for taking practical action to back his words—even if the action sometimes backfires with a boomerang effect—Mugabe has thrown a big blow to actualize why his country has chosen not to recognize Libya’s rebels and their leadership even as indications are clear that their rebellion against Gaddafi has succeeded in getting them the power that they’ve sought since the uprising began in mid-February.
Known for his strident verbal attacks on anything he detests—whether in his country’s internal politics or global affairs—Mugabe has taken a giant step that will somehow throw some light on why the African Union has refused to recognize the Libyan rebel leadership even though 20 of its members have turned coat to do so.
Mugabe is no stranger to controversies, dating back to his freedom-fighting days. His refusal to recognize the NTC may strike us as weird, especially if we consider his own background as a freedom fighter who led a rebel fighting force (ZANU-PF) to fight against the racist white minority establishment before gaining independence for his country in 1980.
So, knowing very well what fighting for freedom means to an aggrieved population, why won’t he have sympathy for the Libyan rebels and support them to achieve their goals but rather turn against them?
There are striking similarities between the factors that have propelled the Libyan rebels to where they are now in their fight against Gaddafi and the rebellion that paved the way for Zimbabwe’s independence. Despite obvious differences (probably only in the context of the amount of support that the Libyan rebels have received from the West and its military machine, NATO), the quest for freedom that sparked off the insurrection against Gaddafi isn’t any different from what undergirded the rebellion led by Mugabe to free the former Rhodesia from white minority control.
Perhaps, the obvious difference is that unlike Mugabe who led a fighting force against white racist rulers, the Libyan rebels were fighting against one of their own whose 42-year-long dictatorship was too much to contain any longer.
We acknowledge that unlike the Libyan rebels who had to fight their way all over the country before settling in the national capital to install themselves in office, the Zimbabwean case involved a peaceful negotiated settlement at the height of the fighting that led to the Lancaster Agreement to ensure a smooth transition. The Libyan rebels, on the other hand, have rejected all peaceful overtures made by the African Union and depended solely on the military campaign fuelled by NATO’s superior armaments. By spurning the AU’s political roadmap, the Libyan rebels stepped hard on a big toe on the continent, hence, the AU’s reluctance to give the NTC any diplomatic recognition at this stage.
To the AU—and in particular, Zimbabwe—the fighting for control of Libya is still in progress. There is no pressing need, then, to recognize the rebels until a clear winner emerges and Gaddafi relinquishes his hold on power. Even then, the manner in which the rebels have used Western support in the Libyan conflict leaves a sour taste in the mouths of African leaders like Mugabe who have persistently stood up to condemn the West for its policies and actions toward Africa.
Within this broad context of a collective stance by the continental body (AU) on the Libyan rebels, Zimbabwe has its own peculiar reasons for treating the NTC the way it is doing. It seems there is a special bond of friendship that has cemented Mugabe and Gaddafi to the point as to make it difficult for Mugabe to accept what the rebels have done to Gaddafi.
Some personal and self-centred interests bind Mugabe and Gaddafi. The close ties between both are based on their shared anti-Western stance. Mugabe has condemned the NATO-led attacks on Gaddafi targets in Libya as “callous,” saying the Western coalition wants to kill the long-term leader to help itself to Libyan oil.
Apart from anything considered as the economic benefits of that friendship, it seems that Gaddafi means more to Zimbabwe under Mugabe than the NTC can fathom. We are told that Gaddafi’s Libya has many investments in countries, including Zimbabwe; and the forceful removal of Gaddafi from power will erode any benefits expected from such investments.
Gaddafi has been a sort of “saviour” to Zimbabwe at other levels too. At the height of a fuel crisis that threatened to bring Zimbabwe’s economy to its knees, Gaddafi visited Zimbabwe and pledged to supply oil to the southern African country in exchange for land to grow tobacco.
Mugabe’s record in office speaks volumes about his political philosophy and agenda for independence. His government’s vehement implementation of policies that led to the violent divesting of lands from white farmers and the consequent collapse of the tobacco industry (the mainstay of the Zimbabwean economy) with its devastating effect on the country’s economy comes to mind.
But despite all that economic stagnation, Mugabe hasn’t looked back. Nor has he reduced the pressure on his opponents, as we can tell from the constant head-butting that goes on between his faction of the government and that of the Movement for Democratic Congress (MDC) of Morgan Tsvangirai.
The question that emerges is: Will Zimbabwe come to realize that its friend, Gaddafi, is indeed out of reckoning and will never return to the citadel of power to call the shots? And will it, then, continue to treat the NTC the way it is doing now? Or open its doors to a new crop of diplomats? Only time will tell.
But for now, Mugabe has taken the first giant step to concretize his contempt for the NTC, caring very little (or nothing at all) for the backlash. Is Zimbabwe’s action a pace-setter for other African countries to follow? With what effect, when 20 members of the AU have already turned coat and joined the band-waggon to give diplomatic recognition to the NTC? Does it really hurt the NTC if it doesn’t have any diplomatic representation in Zimbabwe at all?
With this drastic action, it appears that Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is on course to dare the devil again and damn the consequences, even as age wears him out and his country’s future hangs in the balance.
By Dr. Michael J.K. Bokor