Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe buggered British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labour government because after demonising him and his regime, they could not understand why he still enjoyed local and regional support.
According to British academic Julia Gallagher this was largely because to British politicians and officials, Africa is “politically empty”. African politics is about identity or personality rather than ideology.
“As such there is a certain British inability to cope with moral ambiguity in Africa, which in turn helps to explain the government’s incoherence and incapacity over Zimbabwe,” she says.
“Once the British government had demonised Robert Mugabe and his regime, it was at a loss to understand remaining local and regional support for him. Instead, there was a tendency to avoid Zimbabwe altogether,” she says in a paper entitled: Healing the Scars? Idealising Britain in Africa, 1997- 2007.
Gallagher says one political researcher suggested that: “Blair found the whole subject (Zimbabwe and Mugabe)so painful that he wouldn’t allow officials to brief him…….If you’ve got an idealized view of Africa it (Zimbabwe) really buggers it up”.
Relations between Blair and Mugabe were sour from the time he came to office. Blair was elected British Prime Minister in 1997 the same time that Zimbabwe began its concerted campaign to get more land from Zimbabwe’s white farmers but expected Britain to fund the programme.
The relations were worsened by Blair’s Secretary for International Development Clare Short’s undiplomatic letter on the land issue in Zimbabwe to then Lands Minister Kumbirai Kangai on 5 November 1997.
Short literally slapped Mugabe in the face by saying it was not Britain’s responsibility to meet the cost of land purchases in Zimbabwe. Mugabe had given Britain until July 1997 to provide funds for land reform which it had promised at the Lancaster House Conference in 1979. The Conference paved the way for Zimbabwe’s independence.
“We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish, and as you know, we were colonised, not colonisers,” Short said.
Zimbabwean author Blessing-Miles Tendi argues that Short’s letter was more indicative of the Blair government’s lack of knowledge of the historical complications of the land question in Zimbabwe than an abdication of Britain’s responsibility. But Mugabe capitalised on this.
Gallagher, who is working on more research on the Mugabe-Blair relationship, says there is a strong feeling within British political circles that Africa should be treated differently from the rest of the world.
She says when British politicians interact with Africa they assume that their actions are above their own national interests, and they are engaged in a noble cause.
“The notion that Britain is engaged in a moral crusade in Africa derives from the popular and historically deep rooted conceptions of the continent as needy and helpless. The British role in this scenario is one of taking up the cause of the voiceless African poor in an honourable attempt to induce better governance behaviour from African leaders, who are usually described in either starkly good or more often bad terms.”
“This advocacy assumes, of course, a curious sense of a right or facility to speak for Africans,” she adds.