Government of all the talents


Zim needs 1980-style solution

A deal mediated by the SADC may not have enough moral credentials to attract international funds to Zimbabwe

Now that a concerned world has recovered from the euphoric though disconcerting sight of Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe shaking hands with his challenger Morgan Tsvangirai, albeit reluctantly – and seeing they have indeed talked to each other – we are perhaps free to focus fresh optimism on what the two might usefully talk about.

Although Mugabe is unlikely to be committed to real power sharing (as opposed to the view that he has it all but wouldn’t mind sharing a bit with his opposition) a creative, even breathtaking, option is now open to Comrade Bob – namely, a best-person interim government. Not only would it stun the world and help to rescue Mugabe’s lost legacy, but a government of all the talents (as the concept was quaintly called in the nineteenth century) is something Zimbabwe’s president understands very well.

When he first swept to power in 1980 on a tsunami of adulation, Mugabe’s inaugural administration was a best-person government which included British-born, talented farmer Denis Norman in the agriculture portfolio and canny former Rhodesian finance minister David Smith, a Scot, as head of the new treasury. Mugabe had absolutely all the power in those days but he sincerely wanted the country to prosper under his leadership. So, recognising the need to reassure former white Rhodesians – who possessed most of the country’s capital, intellectual and otherwise – and acknowledging the painful fact that he had little relevant talent in his own ranks, Zimbabwe’s first black ruler put aside the undoubtedly pressing loyalty issues inherent in liberation politics to act in the best interests of all Zimbabweans.

Could this intensely complicated man make a similarly magnanimous decision so late in his much-vilified premiership? It is an audacious idea, and an uncharacteristically constructive one in the face of the sustained destruction Mugabe has unleashed on Zimbabwe over the past decade. But it is within his power to opt for the greater good rather than continued tyranny. He did it once before when he was expected to wreak havoc, and to great effect for his first five years in office. He knows as well as anyone anywhere that a carefully-chosen best-person interim government could get Zimbabwe back on its feet faster than any known alternative.

Wartime Britain adopted a coalition cabinet of its most talented individuals in order to manage the damage wrought by years of conflict in the Forties. So did Norway. “We put the best people in an all-party government during and after the war,” says May-Elin Stener, Minister Counsellor of the Norwegian Embassy in Pretoria. “That was what we did when we had to rebuild our own countries.”

In Zimbabwe’s case, it was in consultation with the British that newly-elected Robert Mugabe chose a similarly pragmatic solution to the country’s woes following the catastrophic15-year-long bush war in 1980. Britain’s last governor in Rhodesia, Lord Soames, and Mugabe had struck up an unexpected friendship when Zimbabwe’s adored black prime minister told the avuncular English aristocrat that there was nobody in his party with the skills to run a government.

It was a poignant moment, the governor’s widow Lady Soames recalled when I interviewed her in London in 2006. “He was quite frank about having nobody trained in anything except guerrilla warfare,” she said.

In those days, Mugabe had the good judgment, moral courage and sense of duty to put aside his political preferences in favour of Zimbabwe’s best interests. Why? Because Lord Soames respected the new premier and he was therefore able to appeal to Mugabe’s better instincts.

Could “Mad Bob” Mugabe defy the direst of predictions to act against the odds once more, assuming he is not being held hostage to the whims of his generals as some observers seem to believe? It is at least possible. It might appeal to him as a swansong to what he sees as his life-long “sacrifice and suffering”. It is certainly worth a try, especially if it comes as a suggestion from Britain, endorsed by rich western reconstruction packages.

A SADC-mediated deal on its own, by contrast, may not have the moral credentials to attract the international funds earmarked for Zimbabwe and critical for its economic recovery. Africa will doubtless have resources to commit to the beleaguered country, but not on the same scale.

Back in 1980, Robert Mugabe’s aim in appointing a best-person government despite the discord it caused in his own ranks was to retain white skills in the interests of the country’s economy. Today, its purpose might be to attract back to Zimbabwe those many exiled citizens who have gained invaluable experience of modern economic endeavour elsewhere. It would be from among Zimbabwe’s own people, albeit many supporting the MDC and some entirely devoid of political ambition, that Mugabe and Tsvangirai could select an interim government of all the talents.

The boldest and most statesman-like gesture imaginable in the circumstances, such a best-person government would restore confidence to Zimbabweans at home and abroad like no other move ever could. Not without precedent – even the USA has from time to time brought in experts to help the national cause – a government of all the talents in Zimbabwe has the potential to save the country in an inclusive and admirable way.

The rationale for such a solution is already apparent in the cautious optimism with which the Mbeki-brokered talks have been greeted at home and abroad. It is true that nobody won Zimbabwe’s March election outright, say the pundits of compromise, noting that the much-vaunted Kenyan solution reflected a widespread desire for peace at any price once violence had threatened to spiral out of control.

As we watch the situation unfold, violence in Zimbabwe’s rural areas is continuing long after the electoral process has ended – for reasons that are far from clear. Is it now out of control due to the growing dominance of war lords? Is Mugabe showing who is boss while power-sharing talks are underway? Is he, perhaps, hell-bent on eliminating his opposition? Or is Zanu-PF creating the conditions for the concept of peace at any price to gain momentum?

Whatever the reason, the international community dare not turn its back on rural Zimbabweans – who are currently dying from hunger as well as torture – in anticipation of a time when the suffering country may finally be deemed to require peace at any price.



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