Why Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe ended his annual January vacation early

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Now you see him, now you don’t.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe spends most of January hiding from his people, only emerging from seclusion to attend to the needs of fellow dictators.

For much of January, Mugabe has been vacationing in the Far East, although most observers would say his itinerary could better be described as medical tourism. His spokesmen claim his nine or more visits to Singapore and Malaysia last year were for check-ups following the removal of cataracts.

Mugabe’s daughter, Bona, recently graduated from the University of Hong Kong where her mother, Grace, made frequent visits. On one such visit Zimbabwe's first lady clashed with British tabloid stalkers who were assaulted by her bodyguards. Such incidents, which have also occurred in Brussels and Rome, are partly the result of the secrecy that surrounds the Mugabes when they travel abroad.

Grace Mugabe, a dedicated follower of fashion, has difficulty concealing her extravagant tastes when visiting the few capitals still open to Zimbabwe’s first family. The Mugabes are permitted to enter any country which hosts United Nations offices, and they are not shy about taking advantage of the convention. They are also free, of course, to visit capitals in the Far East.

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But the climate there is not as friendly as it used to be. During the Mahathir Mohamad-era, Mugabe was a favored friend. While on his visits to Malaysia in the 1990s, he invariably appeared on the front page of the government-owned Herald newspaper, ensconced with Mahathir on a sofa “sharing a joke." The current incumbent in Kuala Lumpur, Najib Razak, is keen to project a more reformist image, which means less coziness on the sofa.

Mugabe rarely breaks with tradition, but this year he suddenly turned up in Harare unannounced, halfway through his customary month-long vacation.

This time he was pictured “sharing a joke” with Equatorial Guinea dictator Teodoro Nguema Obiang. Speculation was rife as to what had led the president to hurry home, but it soon became clear. Obiang, who is outgoing chairman of the African Union (AU), wanted support for Jean Ping of Gabon who was seeking another term as AU commission chair, a post as powerful as the AU chair itself.

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However, Ping was unpopular in Harare for backing NATO intervention in Libya. He had also supported the removal of Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast, while Zimbabwe opposed the move. 

And there was another complication.

Most southern African states, members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), had pledged support for the bid for the AU commission job of former South African foreign minister and ex-wife of President Jacob Zuma, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Zimbabwe had not declared its hand on that one, and the five hours of talks we are told Mugabe held with Obiang would indicate that the matter was not easy to resolve.

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Indeed, Mugabe’s spokesman George Charamba disclosed that Zimbabwe had a beef with South Africa that was not widely known in Harare. Firstly, Zuma’s handling of the Zimbabwean inter-party talks, at which Zuma admitted for discussion a lengthy MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) dossier on Zanu-PF’s human rights abuses, still rankled. And South Africa’s refusal to back Zimbabwe’s 2009 bid for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council was another cause for complaint.

Clearly Mugabe did not want to rush to support either Ping or Dlamini-Zuma. But Charamba’s remarks suggest Zimbabwe’s 87-year-old leader was leaning towards a vote against South Africa. In the end, neither candidate won the required two thirds of the vote in the gleaming new Chinese-built AU headquarters this week. The AU has extended Ping’s mandate until its next summit scheduled for Malawi in June or July while Dlamini-Zuma will get another shot at the job.

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South Africa has said Dlamini-Zuma will be its candidate again. Officials in Pretoria have been spinning the vote as a victory for South Africa. A senior official told the South African press the outcome was a defeat for the French.

“Even though we didn’t receive an outright win,” he said, “South Africa has emerged victorious as we have defeated the agenda of the French and foreign intervention in African affairs,” he said.

Everybody else has portrayed it as an unmitigated defeat for President Zuma.

The battle will now resume. This means more horse trading as leaders mobilize their supporters for the Malawi summit. Both France and the United States have been engaged in not so subtle lobbying behind the scenes.

In his maneuvering, Mugabe, we can safely assume, asked Obiang what he could offer in the way of reciprocity in return for his support for Ping. He would in all certainty have asked for a guarantee that Zimbabwe would not be placed on the summit agenda at any point. Mugabe did not want the AU to debate his rule of Zimbabwe, particularly his plans to hold early elections in 2012.

At least we now know why Mugabe hurried back from the Far East. He had an important card to play in the diplomacy of the region and he played it with finesse. Zimbabwe was duly kept off the conference agenda as a crisis spot, and Mugabe got to address the assembled heads of state. And having kept everyone guessing up to the last moment, he voted for Dlamini-Zuma as AU commission chair.

However, it is not all good news for Zimbabwe's cantankerous ruler, who turns 88 this month. Ping remains in harness at the AU commission, an agent of the British and French Mugabe firmly believes, while South Africa will continue to promote Dlamini-Zuma which Mugabe sees as emblematic of South Africa's regional hegemony.

The new AU chair, President Thomas Boni Yayi of Benin is unlikely to offer Mugabe any favors in the tradition of Obiang.

So Mugabe will soon learn that what goes around, comes around.

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