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Relations with US will change: Mubako

By Sean O'Driscoll.

Ambassador of Zimbabwe Simbi Veke Mubako is an optimist. He has one of the toughest diplomatic jobs in Washington - representing a nation that is engulfed in international condemnation - yet he's smiling.

"Relations with the US will change once they realise our policies are working," he says.

Even the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) decision to cancel its Zimbabwean programme doesn't seem to faze him. "It is not the end of the world. We have learned that there is life after the IMF," he adds quickly.

Mubako spoke with The Washington Diplomat as Zimbabwe reaches a deciding moment in its chaotic slide from international approval. Its land confiscation programme is now complete, with 11 million hectares taken from white farmers and given to hundreds of thousands of its supporters. Angry mobs have killed 10 of those farmers in the process, with television footage beaming the images around the world.

The price for these land seizures, and for allegations of political intimidation, has been astronomical.

Sitting back in his chair in the Zimbabwean Embassy, Mubako accepts that his country is experiencing an international public relations disaster. The United States, the European Union and neutral Switzerland have placed travel and financial restrictions on the country's leaders. Denmark has closed its embassy. Individual members of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) have denounced President Robert Mugabe, and the British Commonwealth has suspended the country from its meetings.

Despite all this, Mubako refuses to accept the economists' predictions of a grim future for Zimbabwe, believing that better use of confiscated land will bring about a transformation in the country's fragile economy. He also remains defiantly proud of the land resettlement scheme.

"There is a principle involved. African governments feel that this land was taken away unfairly by colonial powers in the first place. Why are we paying back for this land? This is our land. It was taken from us," he says.

A former justice minister and high court judge, he admits that he finds the US ambassador post "a tough one".

Short of breaking off all diplomatic ties, relations between the two countries could hardly be worse, especially as the United States refused to recognise Zimbabwe's elections earlier this year.

Mubako smiles when reminded of the first line of his embassy's web site: "The Embassy was established in 1980, immediately after Zimbabwe's independence and relations between Zimbabwe and the USA are good.

"That has not been the case for two or three years," he says and then smiles. "We think the main reason is that we are still having problems with our former colonial power, Britain, which is an ally of the United States."

He agrees that people should not be killed in the land resettlements but sees a great hypocrisy in the West's concern for the deaths of 10 white farmers, compared to 2,5 million people he says have been killed since Rwanda and Uganda joined the conflict in the Congo (Zimbabwe withdrew the last of its troops from the Congo this month under the terms of a pace agreement.)

"They talk about people being killed, but I do not hear serious US condemnation on these killings," he says. "Undoubtedly there is a huge hypocrisy there."

Nevertheless, he is still hopeful that the United States can be won over once the benefits of the resettlement programme can be shown. "Close to 400 000 people have been resettled on 11 million hectares, and with an average of six in each family, that is close to 2,5 million people who have benefited from this land reform," he notes.

So if the programme is complete, does that mean no more farms will be seized?

"No, I am not saying that," he replies quickly. "The government has said the programme is complete, but that doesn't mean that more land will not be resettled if required in the future."

Although the programme has won the support of many rural voters, it has set Zimbabwe as an agricultural pariah that has seen inward investment fall apart.

For example, a statement by J Stephen Morrison, director of the African programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that "Mugabe is dragging the agricultural sector into the abyss and you're seeing a collapse of external investment confidence."

"Well, I think that statement is sweeping. It's not in fact accurate," says Mubako. "When the scheme is in full swing and farmers are actually working on the land, the reform programme will be seen as an impetus to agricultural production. There will be more people working and they will be farming much more than the former white farmers, who used only a third of their land."

Mubako readily admits, however, that his country is losing the international relations battle.

"Yes, I agree, but that is because we are fighting a very powerful country, Britain, but that does not gainsay the fact that the programme is a good one. And the world, I think, will soon see that Britain was running a vicious and (unjust) campaign against us."

The close relationship between Britain and the United States has made the argument almost exclusively one-sided, Mubako adds.

"Britain will go to the US and say, "Help us here, and we will help you with, for example, Saddam Hussein." They have much more clout than we have, but that does not mean that they are right. They are wrong, and we think the rest of the world knows they are wrong. All of the African and Asian countries and the UN are behind us."

When asked about a recent meeting of the Sadc, which refused to let Zimbabwe take over the deputy chair, Mubako's response is quick: "No, it was Zimbabwe itself which declined because if you become deputy, you automatically become chairman the following year. Zimbabwe felt that with our problems - and we do have economic and diplomatic problems at the moment - this is not the right time for us to take on that responsibility. It was Zimbabwe who nominated Tanzania to take that position."

According to recent press reports, however, this is not the view of some members of Sadc.

"Well, they are wrong," Mubako says. "These are the countries that are our diplomatic adversaries, but ask the Sadc members who were there, and they tell you that is what happened."

Mubako is keen to highlight the great changes that are coming in Zimbabwean agriculture. But how can this be done without the IMF?

"We would very much love to have IMF assistance, but if IMF assistance is not forthcoming, that does not mean that we should fold up. We have existed in the past without IMF. It's not the end of the world."

Mubako previously served as a Member of Parliament for the Masvingo Province, where he worked for better conditions for the province during a serious drought in 1992. The whole country is now facing a similar threat, with half of its 14 million people facing an uncertain future.

Mubako insists Zimbabwe's predicament is not a direct result of its falling out with foreign governments and financiers. "No doubt, in terms of getting assistance and getting foreign currencies to buy food, it would be much easier if we had the IMF," he says, noting, however, that "the causes are squarely a natural phenomenon for which we are not fully prepared, but the whole region has been affected, not just us."

Irrigation is the key to overcoming the drought, he adds, and Mubako is hoping that the new resettled communities will be able to put that in place.

Despite the current state of relations, Mubako says he is grateful to the United States and Britain for their humanitarian aid and doesn't try to disguise the seriousness of the situation facing his country.

"Most of the outside drought relief aid comes from the United States and Britain. Even though we have problems with them, they have voted some money for Zimbabwe because they realise that this is a humanitarian situation which the country is facing. Whether you agree with the government or not, there are millions of people who are suffering or who are going to suffer, so these countries have done the right thing by not politicising the situation."

Outside of humanitarian relief, both countries have cut aid to Zimbabwe because of alleged election rigging by Zimbabwe's leader, Robert Mugabe.

Mubako is reminded of a recent announcement by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, in which he spoke out against the "environment of fear and intimidation" that hung over local elections taking place later that week, and said that the Zimbabwean government had "failed to take necessary steps for a credible democratic election."

Mubako remains unfazed. "At the moment, relations are so strained that we expect those kind of statements from the United States. They don't mean anything - they are not true. That statement was issued even before the elections. You cannot begin dismissing the elections when they are being planned. It just means you are prejudging."

The State Department statement was, however, based on reports that 700 opposition candidates declined to stand.

"That is what the opposition party says, but that is not true. They were not intimidated. They failed to find candidates to run in those areas. They always look for an excuse for failing, but they don't have the support. The truth is that they knew that they had no support in those areas, but in other areas they won because they had support. They did not contest those results."

Although the United States and Britain panned Zimbabwe's national elections this year, Mubako claims that Nigeria and South Africa deemed them reasonably fair in their reports, despite voting to ban Zimbabwe from British Commonwealth meetings.

The irony of the matter is that these countries had their own delegations in Zimbabwe, and the country delegations said that the elections were free and fair. They still went along with the Commonwealth compromise to suspend Zimbabwe, but that's their problem."

Zimbabwe's envoy is clearly a fighter. "A straight talker and a very intelligent and calm presence, but he is a Mugabe man through and through," is how one journalist, who has spent more than 10 years in Zimbabwe, described him.

Mubako has had a long history in both politics and law, which served as training for one of Washington's toughest diplomatic posts. He was appointed a Cabinet minister upon Zimbabwean independence in 1980. He remained a minister for more than 12 years, holding a large array of portfolios.

From 1980 to 1983, he was Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs and saw the introduction of several legal reforms that shook off some of the legacy of his country's colonial past. He would go on to hold posts as the Minister of Home Affairs, national supplies, and regional and international co-operation, representing the Masvingo province in the national Parliament and later serving as a High Court judge.

When the country needed with a lot of experience to take up what was to become an almost impossible diplomatic task, Mubako was close at hand.

And here he sits, in an embassy as modest as the finances of the country itself, prepared to argue his case with anyone he meets. Does he feel he has made any advances in the past three years?

"Well, I don't know, that's for other people to say. I can't say I have improved relations with the United States simply because the timing of what was happening in Zimbabwe. I could say that things could have been worse.

Mubako admits that few Americans know much about his country, and if they do, it is often because of biased news reports. He recalls travelling to Vermont to lecture on southern African history and discovering that only three out of 24 students could point out Zimbabwe on a map.

"I found out during the day that they were very bright students. They had not read anything about Zimbabwe, but they had an interest in Africa. Most of them passed the course in the end because they read rapidly and avidly, they are very good learners. But that showed the level of knowledge wasn't very high."

For Mubako, this is a challenge but also an opportunity.

"Education gives us an opportunity to make people see our situation more clearly," he says. "It's our job to inform as much as possible as long as people are sincere. We will go on educating people, telling them what is really going on. I am confident that some day the truth will be seen.

- Sean O'Driscoll is a freelance writer in Washington DC.

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