Ex-South African president Thabo Mbeki may be a nice person in his personal life, but there is something nasty about his trip to meet his long-time ally, Robert Mugabe, in Harare recently. It is time to start looking for the maggots, because that visit is throwing a big, fishy smell.
Mbeki touched down in the capital last Monday and officials were quick to mark that as a “strictly private visit”. No doubt about the privacy of the visit. He could have just sneaked in without public notice if he had a choice. Questions linger, though, around what exactly it was they were meeting for.
South’s Africa’s ambassador to Zimbabwe, Mphakama Mbete, claimed Mbeki and Mugabe discussed experiences — whatever that means — in South Africa and here, including matters relating to liberation movements in southern Africa. The Zimbabwean president hinted at that in late June during the burial of former Botswana president, Ketumile Masire, when he revealed that he would be meeting with Mbeki to talk about the said liberation movements.
Mugabe’s spokesperson, George Charamba, was more cautious. Dodgy, in fact. He told the media that Zimbabwean officials didn’t even attend the engagement between the two pals, so he couldn’t know what the two political grannies were up to. The media, on the other hand, naively speculated Mbeki was coming to solve Mugabe’s succession headache.
Speculation, explanation or just claim, none of the above washes. Mbeki would not bring any value sharing Zimbabwean-South African experiences with Mugabe. It would always be an exercise in futility, not worth boarding a plane for and bothering an old man who is just too swamped with an economy beyond fixing and party factional fights too hot for his frail hands.
Mbeki had ample time to discuss with Mugabe, matters relating to the two neighbouring countries’ experiences when he was president. He certainly did that. Problem is, his efforts came to nought because his counterpart is just where he left him, if not worse, when Kgalema Motlanthe took over to finish off his term of office in 2008.
If at all Zimbabwe and South Africa were to benefit from such an engagement, Mugabe would have to be talking to Jacob Zuma, the current head of state across the Limpopo. Not Mbeki, whose weird conclusion just before he was deposed was that there was no crisis in Zimbabwe despite the run-away inflation, a lethal cholera outbreak and mass persecution of Mugabe’s critics.
The same applies to the liberation movements. Mbeki is obviously a bad choice to be discussing southern Africa’s liberation movements with. Whether that conversation is necessary or not is debate for another day. But the point remains that there are better people for Mugabe to be talking to on this subject than Mbeki. Of course, he remains an ANC elder, but he no longer holds sway in that party.
The ANC is now run by other people, and these are the ones whose influence Mugabe must be tapping into. If he at all intends to unlock any value, Mugabe must be talking to the likes of ANC’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa and the party’s secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe. They represent the current and future ANC. Engaging Mbeki is merely walking back into the alleys of history.
And there is nothing new that Mbeki would bring into the process to resolve the Zanu-PF succession issue. He has failed in the past. In fact, Mugabe has played him so smartly Mbeki must have cried. Besides, Mbeki has always insisted that Zimbabwean issues must be resolved by Zimbabweans. That must include private institutional matters like party politics. What would Mbeki do when Mugabe has already decided to die in office and his wife wants him to rule even as a corpse? What would Mbeki achieve if he could not persuade Mugabe to step down for the good of Zimbabwe more than a decade ago?
So, there must be other reasons why Mbeki paid Mugabe that mysterious visit last week. To put it bluntly, Mbeki and Mugabe could be involved in some naughty, if not dirty, deals.
There is always something shifty about visits such as the one by Mbeki. Current and retired public officials usually pay shady visits when they are involved in underhand or, worse, corrupt deals of one sort or another. Way back in 2003, the deposed and late Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, came to Zimbabwe with a flashy entourage. Then, our officials told us and the world that Gaddafi’s was on an official sojourn to cement ties between two “icons” of African liberation.
That was a post-truth, anyway. The real truth emerged later. The Mugabe establishment was arranging to mortgage our oil facilities in exchange for fuel that was then in acute shortage. Unchallenged exposés revealed that our government was in the process of giving Gaddafi a controlling stake in the Feruka oil pipeline stretching from Mozambique to Mutare.
This was in addition to another big stake in the Msasa oil refining facility that would benefit Gaddafi and a Libyan ruling clique through the supply of that country’s fuel to southern African countries that included Zambia, Malawi, DRC, Swaziland, Bostwana and Mozambique. Some even said Gaddafi had already been given vast tracts of gold-rich land in Mashonaland Central. All to ensure a steady supply of fuel to dry parched Zimbabwe and possibly benefit a local coterie of corrupt officials.
There have been several other murky official and private visits to and from Zimbabwe that have hoisted a big red flag of possible corruption. Chartered flights have landed here over the years, followed by hushed visits to State House and many other mysterious places. The Lebanese, Russians, Chinese —you name them — have come here, leaving more questions than answers. In fact, Mugabe has publicly admitted that his ministers and other high-ranking officials have in the past hosted powerful businesspeople and attempted to take bribes from them to facilitate underworld deals.
But this sad narrative is not limited to Zimbabwe. African heads of state and senior government officials on the continent have played varying roles in the now all too familiar script. Nigeria, for which Mugabe, ironically, has abundant contempt for, for alleged insitutionalised corruption, is notorious in this regard.
In 2009, US courts convicted William Jefferson, an American lawmaker, for illegal gifts involving a former Nigerian vice president, Atiku Abubakar. Jefferson fixed a lucrative Nigerian telecommunications tender for a high-tech firm riding on his congressional status. Big money bribes were exchanging hands, according to an affidavit by the FBI. Abubakar allegedly played an active role in all this, using his position as the second most powerful man in Nigeria.
But here is a useful catch. Jefferson paid several mysterious visits to Nigeria where Abubakar was his opulent host. And Abubakar was also a regular visitor to the USA. In fact, he was a familiar figure in Washington’s diplomatic circles where he became known for giving powerful speeches on democracy and the need for Africa to rid itself of military dictatorships.
That was just a façade and simulation, of course. To the uninitiated, Abubakar was a pro-democracy proponent and a human rights figurehead.
Back to Mbeki, the cardinal rule is that you must not give out too much information when doing certain deals, otherwise your machinations will be exposed when you least expect it.
Mbeki’s name has popped up on more than one occasion when scandals relating to diamond deals surfaced. And it has remained mysterious why a figure of such high profile would have his name in the mud like that. Mugabe inadvertently let the cat out of the bag five years ago. At a diamonds conference in Victoria Falls Mugabe revealed that Mbeki had complained that some of the Zimbabwean president’s ministers had demanded a $10 million bribe from ANC-linked investors who intended to get involved in the diamond business here.
That revelation is puzzling, but also revealing. Mugabe, or the Zimbabwean government, had never at one time acknowledged plans by ANC “investors” to be involved in the controversial diamond mining sub-sector. Secondly, Mbeki was already out of government and no longer involved in regular ANC business. It is, therefore, not clear what part he was playing in the saga. It would have made better sense if it was Zuma or some other current ANC leader who had confided in Mugabe about the attempted extortion. That leaves Mbeki as a directly interested party who was possibly seeking personal gain.
This possibility is hardly surprising. Mugabe has a way of rewarding those that help his cause. Mugabe has Mbeki to thank for pushing for the Global Political Agreement that led to the unity government in 2009 and preserved him in power to this day. And Mugabe must still be feeling the urge to continue thanking Mbeki by gifting him with some lucrative, albeit hazy, deals in Zimbabwe.
Tawanda Majoni is the national co-ordinator at Information for Development Trust (IDT), a non-profit organisation promoting access to information on issues relating to public and private sector good governance, transparency and accountability and can be contacted on [email protected]