Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Order, order. Gentlemen, we welcome you, two very distinguished commentators on the African scene, part indeed of an all too small band in our country. We welcome you in your different ways. Mr Keane is a special correspondent for BBC News. In February this year during the election camapign, you operated under cover in Zimbabwe for the Panorama programme and we know your background in southern Africa. Mr Dowden, a long-term writer and commentator on southern African affairs, previous Africa Editor of the Economist and Independent and Diplomatic Editor of The Independent and now writing for several newspapers. The election in March of this year and subsequent political developments. Have you been surprised at the ease with which President Mugabe, after all the turmoil before and during the election has apparently been able to impose his will on the local scene?

  (Mr Dowden) The short answer is no. But the question is: how much has he succeeded in doing this? I think everybody is exhausted. You cannot help but notice that he has not yet produced an economic revival plan which he promised. He has not even produced a cabinet reshuffle which everybody expected. What he has been talking about recently is Congo and things like that. He feels he won but he does not know really what to do next.

  2. How secure is he?
  (Mr Dowden) There is no sign, that I have seen, of a great popular uprising. The people in the towns who have suffered most through price rises and so on have tried demonstrations and they turn quite nasty. The poorer people get the less likely they are to cause that sort of trouble. In that sense he is very secure and he must also be secure in the knowledge that he has the support of several other African presidents. By my count only Senegal and Ghana have publicly criticised him directly.

  3. We shall be coming on later to the regional context.
  (Mr Keane) As somebody who has been there relatively recently, the critical factor to bear in mind is the state of fear which exists. Richard quite rightly points out that people who are hungry, who need to worry about where their next meal is coming from—and everybody we spoke to at the level of peasant or country person spoke to us about the difficulty in getting food and queuing for maize, in having to walk miles to get maize—are not people who, in blunt terms, have the physical energy, but moreover when confronted with the apparatus of what amounts to police state powers, are going to come out on the streets in their thousands. I have been in many countries where one could, in times like this, where a regime has been under threat, feel a groundswell from the public, from people on the street, One did not feel that in Zimbabwe.

  4. They are cowed.
  (Mr Keane) Indeed. I was not one of those who believed the opposition was going to sweep to victory on the basis of a great popular mass movement because people were frightened.

  5. A number of African leaders have tried to broker some sort of inter-party dialogue between ZANU-PF and the MDC. Is this a diversionary tactic? Is it a serious runner or will it marginalise or make the MDC less legitimate?
  (Mr Dowden) It is purely imposed from the outside. I would have thought Mr Mugabe would be happy to accept that, if that is the price he has to pay, if as a consequence of outside pressure he has to delegate someone to talk to the MDC. Neither the MDC nor ZANU has any interest in these talks whatever. There is no internal dynamic which should bring them together, the MDC sticks to its line that it wants the election re-run under international supervision and it will not join a government of national unity.

  6. Would it lose credibility if it did?
  (Mr Dowden) Yes, I think so. From what I hear there is a lot of grass-roots support for not joining the government. What they are afraid of is that Mr Mugabe will buy off the leadership either with places in government or financially. There is not much danger of that, but that is a worry and that would be Mr Mugabe's aim. The fact that it is imposed from the outside and there is no real interest in it makes me think they are going nowhere.
  (Mr Keane) It has to be seen in the context of southern African leaders wishing to be seen to do something, but in effect knowing that they are doing nothing of any great import or anything that is going to have an effect. From the point of view of people I spoke to in the opposition, one heard repeatedly the phrase, "We're not going to become like Joshua Nkomo. We're not going to be bought off with cabinet seats like ZAPU". I support what Richard has said: I doubt that will happen.

Mr Hamilton

  7. Do either of you think there is any real prospect of the violence stopping so long as Robert Mugabe remains in power?
  (Mr Keane) As long as there is political opposition which threatens Robert Mugabe's power, there will be political violence in response to that. It goes back to the last question. Clearly the people in power have no interest in serious negotiations about a democratic accommodation. Let us not use the word "transition" but "accommodation". As long as they persist in that position, then violence will be used.
  (Mr Dowden) I would add to that the slightly complicating thought that if he were to start losing, the violence would get worse. I have a very strong sense of that government, and it is not just Mugabe, which is "We have never been a one-party state—at one time we wanted to be, but we are not—we allowed democracy, we allow people to form parties and speak out, as long as they don't ever dream that they might actually become the government, because we, ZANU, fought for this country and it is ours". That is why I think that if they were in real danger of losing it all, even lost it, then you might see violence. That is the core of it.
  (Mr Keane) That is correct. There has been too much of a willingness here to concentrate on them staying in power simply because they want to hold onto the trappings of power. There is a deep-rooted sense in ZANU-PF that nobody else can be the legitimate rulers of Zimbabwe because they did not fight for the country. That is not some sort of propagandising statement: people like Mugabe and those close to him really do believe that.

  8. Do you think Morgan Tsvangirai is a genuine democrat or is he a creation of the Western media? Does he have the people's interests at heart genuinely or is it just that he wants power instead of Mugabe?
  (Mr Dowden) In discussions that I have had with him, I do not find him a particularly power-seeking man. If you have stayed at the top of a trade union movement in Africa, you are a pretty tough politician and with some popular support. The fact is that he rules an extraordinarily diverse coalition and he has to duck and weave a bit to hold it together.
  (Mr Keane) It is the question one asks of all politicians.

  9. We are not going to answer it.
  (Mr Keane) Perhaps the question I would ask as a journalist is: is he an effective leader of the opposition? Has he shown himself at crucial junctions to be capable of wise judgement. One has to say that when defeated he did the right thing by not calling his people onto the streets. That did show a degree of political maturity. If you ask me to take it a step further and say whether I feel fully convinced that he would prove to be a democratic leader of a new Zimbabwe, unhappily the evidence in much of the rest of Africa, not South Africa, in the wake of elections—one looks at Zambia as a particular case in point, even looking at Uganda—does not lead one to believe that because people led democratic movements during an election campaign they will automatically prove to be democrats. We should be circumspect and not, as we repeatedly unfortunately do in terms of our foreign policy in Africa, engage in wishful thinking, believing that because people use the rhetoric of democracy, of supporting a free press, the institutions of civil society, they are automatically going to be good democrats when they are elected.

  10. That is very interesting and I am grateful for that qualification. How much of a role has the Western media played in making him more of a figure than he actually is?
  (Mr Keane) Let us be absolutely clear: he is a figure because a huge number of people in Zimbabwe have voted for him. That is why. He can attract huge numbers of people. The Western media simply reflect that reality.
  (Mr Dowden) There is a dichotomous way of looking at African leaders as well: goodies and baddies, good countries and bad countries. It is simply not like that. As they will say, at least Zimbabwe is a democracy and they held an election. Your friends in Uganda do not even allow multi-party democracy. There is a great tendency to say, "This one is the bad guy therefore that one must be the good guy".
  (Mr Keane) It is as complicated as British politics, but a little bit more lethal.

  11. I just hope none of our parties ever uses the tactics of Robert Mugabe. Has either of you found there to be moderate elements within ZANU-PF? If so, is there any role that Western democratic countries can play to help them moderate the worst effects of Mugabe's regime?
  (Mr Dowden) Before the election I said several times that it is quite a divided party and there are big splits between the military wing—who put Mugabe in power in the first place; he owes his position to the military—and some of the more civilian elements. I expected those splits to begin to open up after the election, if for no other reason than if you are 40-year-old ZANU-PF MP in Zimbabwe, where are you going to be in ten years' time? Do you want to nail your colours to Mugabe's mast absolutely or are you beginning to look for someone else? It was also implicit in much of what the South Africans were saying, "Wait until the election. After the election. Let Mugabe win his election and then he will move on". They implied that there would be some movement after the election, but if you read Mugabe's recent speeches you find a man who's mission is only half complete and he is pursuing it very vigorously.

Mr Chidgey

  12. In talking about the belief in democracy of Mr Tsvangirai you made comparisons with Zambia as an example of the way you would not want to go. Where would you place the MDC in relation to the success that President Wade has had in Senegal and the way he has treated what was the ruling party? Would you see this leaning that way or going the other way?
  (Mr Keane) I would very much hope so. In a sense we are jumping ahead of ourselves and not confronting the immediate problem. There is potentially an enormous amount of tragedy and bloodshed in the immediate future before one ever gets to a possibly peaceful transition. That is the critical issue we need to address.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  13. Do you believe that Mugabe did win the election?
  (Mr Keane) I do not really know is the only honest answer to that. I would suspect that there is enough reasonable doubt about the issue strongly to support calls for a re-run of the election.

  14. If there were a re-run of the election, do you think that he would then go down?
  (Mr Keane) I think it is most likely that he would, but that would crucially depend on the circumstances in which the election was held. If you ran it under the kind of conditions which existed under the last election, I suspect we would have a repeat performance, if not worse. If you ran it under genuine international supervision, then he might well be voted out of power.
  (Mr Dowden) You could say that in terms of the number of votes cast, it is possible that he won it. In terms of the playing field, it was so skewed that if there were a re-run, then he might not succeed.

  15. One has been amazed at the way in which ordinary citizens in Zimbabwe have been prepared to risk their lives and one has also had a tremendous amount of sympathy for those who have tried to give them objective news and had great difficulty in doing so. How difficult is it for ordinary Zimbabweans to know truly what is going on?
  (Mr Dowden) I would say that the ones I have talked to use the one source which is the most believed one, which is the BBC's Focus on Africa programme. That is the source of news in practically the whole of Africa. After that it is the pavement radio, people just talking.
  (Mr Keane) And the local papers.
  (Mr Dowden) Yes, local papers, but by word of mouth.

  16. Is there a real danger when people do listen to the BBC?
  (Mr Keane) It is not akin to listening to the BBC in Germany during the war.

  17. That is an extreme example.
  (Mr Keane) Indeed; it is not a happy comparison. What there is great danger in is being seen to show any support for the democratic movement, any belief in speaking your mind. Bear in mind that in the area I went to, Matabeleland, we are talking about people in isolated villages where the eyes and ears of the government are very, very powerful and can bring down on their heads youth militias, secret policemen. It was a constant fear of people we spoke to. I want publicly to pay tribute to the bravery of people who assisted us in getting at the truth of what was happening in the country.

  18. You would describe this as a tyranny.
  (Mr Keane) I would have no difficulty whatsoever in describing the objective conditions to which the people in Zimbabwe are subject as tyrannical.

  19. Is there anything at all which can be done by the European Union or by any people over here or other international organisations to assist those who wish to maintain some form of independent media in Zimbabwe? Is there anything we can usefully do?
  (Mr Keane) We can usefully stay engaged. One of the great disappointments is that if you look at our newspapers and others since the election, there has been scant coverage and, one has to say, on the part of our politicians scant reference to what has been happening in Zimbabwe. I would ask you what kind of message that sends. To be seen to act, in terms of our government and our opposition, and to be seen to be concerned only in the run-up to an election and then to fall silent afterwards sends a rather dangerous message.

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