Interview: US ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGee

RADIO INTERVIEW – The United States ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGee was a guest on SW Radio Africa's Hot Seat Programme. Here is a transcript of the interview with SW Radio's Violet Gonda:

Broadcast October 3 2008

Violet Gonda: We welcome James McGee, the US Ambassador to Zimbabwe on the programme Hot Seat. How are you Ambassador?

Ambassador McGee: Very good Violet and thanks for the opportunity to talk with you today.

Gonda: It’s a long time since you have been on this programme. What is your opinion regarding events in Zimbabwe?

McGee: Violet we were very pleased to see the original agreement but two entire weeks have passed and we have had no forward movement on this. As you know we have now reached an impasse on this agreement. Both sides are demanding key ministries and it looks now that we are going to have someone come in and start to negotiate all over again on the final outcome of this episode.

Gonda: What do you think of the agreement itself and is it a positive development, even towards addressing the political impasse?

McGee: The agreement itself was positive. The issue with the agreement was that it did leave too many things that needed to be finalised. There were major holes in this agreement and we are seeing now that these holes have not been filled in. So until the two political parties can come to agreement on the agreement, so to speak, we are still going to have issues here in Zimbabwe.

Gonda: What are some of these major holes that you have observed or that you have seen?

McGee: The key major hole is who is going to actually have power. This agreement says President Mugabe would still control executive power. It also says that Morgan Tsvangirai, the new Prime Minister, would have executive power. I find it hard to understand how a government can operate with two people having executive power.

And then you have the issue of the division of the cabinet and as we know from what’s happening right now, that is not working. So those are the key issues right now that are just not happening and something has to be filled in before we get to something that is workable for the people of Zimbabwe.

Gonda: And Mugabe said recently at the UN summit in New York that things have changed and that the United States and other western countries should remove the sanctions. Your thoughts on the removal of sanctions.

McGee: Our thoughts on the removal of sanctions are very, very simple and nothing has changed Violet as far as that is concerned. What we have said and what we continue to say is that we will re-engage with this government and that includes the removal of sanctions based upon performance. Until this government can show us that they are performing to no.1: Meet the will of the Zimbabwean people. No.2: To uphold the principles that were established in the Hague – the five principles… then we are not going to remove the sanctions.

Gonda: You know others would ask that shouldn’t you remove these financial sanctions given the fact that the world is currently affected by a global credit crunch?

McGee: No. The financial sanctions that have been brought against Zimbabwe are there for a good reason and the good reason is the fact that Zimbabwe has refused to payback the loans outstanding to this country. They have refused to service their debt and that is why there are financial sanctions against Zimbabwe. You are not going to find any international lending institution willing to lend money to Zimbabwe. Because Zimbabwe has a long track record of not paying this money back.

Gonda: So what would happen with a new government – already the political parties have agreed to share power? What would happen with the MDC in power? Will the US congress agree to remove ZIDERA, for example, and even allow institutions like the IMF or the World Bank to start lending money to Zimbabwe even with the MDC in place?

McGee: We have been very consistent on what we say on that particular issue. As long as a new government or even the existing government shows forward movement towards meeting the principles; a respect for human rights, return to rule of law, free market place economy. As long as those issues are being met then we are willing to re-engage fully, fully with that government.

Gonda: What about the suffering masses right now? Doesn’t the blockade right now only make things worse in the country?

McGee: Violet I cannot accept that. There is no suffering in Zimbabwe based upon any sanctions that the United States government has placed on this country. As a matter of fact the United States is providing more assistance to the people of Zimbabwe than the government of Zimbabwe. This year alone Violet we are providing over US$200million in food assistance to the people of Zimbabwe. That is a number that the government of Zimbabwe itself comes nowhere close to matching. So no, no that is a false premise there that the United States is the cause through sanctions causing the suffering in Zimbabwe. The United States is relieving the suffering due to the failed policies of the government of Zimbabwe.

Gonda: So what about the issue of the IMF and the World Bank, wouldn’t that be seen as sanctions that are against the government because it is the government that cannot get these loans to do its business? How would you respond to that?

McGee: Violet again I think that is a false premise because the United States can take 100% of the financial sanctions off Zimbabwe – and these are targeted sanctions against individuals mainly. But even if those with ZIDERA were taken away the government of Zimbabwe – the current government – will not be able to access loans. Anyone we have spoken to – the IMF, the World Bank and other international financial institutions all know that Zimbabwe cannot access loans because they refuse to pay their debts.

Gonda: Now the MDC says that Zanu PF is refusing to relinquish some of the key ministries. Now will the United States be willing to support a new government that would have Zanu PF in charge of social ministries like the Home Affairs ministry, or even the Finance ministry?

McGee: We say that we can work with any government as long as that government is willing to take care of the people of Zimbabwe. We are not here to dictate which ministries should go to which party, but what we are going to do is take a very careful look at the actions of any government here in Zimbabwe. And it really doesn’t matter which political party sits at the head of which ministry. What we want to see is positive action to take care of the people of Zimbabwe.

Gonda: So what do you make of comment made by Jendayi Fraser – the Secretary of State for Africa – recently, when she said the United States will only accept an agreement with Morgan Tsvangirai as leader?

McGee: Jendayi, Mrs Fraser, my supervisor, was talking about the will of the people of Zimbabwe. And if you go back to the March 29th election the people of Zimbabwe clearly did express their will. You know Morgan Tsvangirai may only have received 47% of the votes but when you look at the total opposition votes that was cast in this country it was a clear repudiation of the policies and practises of the Mugabe government. So in that regard she is absolutely right. Morgan Tsvangirai should be the new leader of this nation to respect the will of the people of Zimbabwe.

Gonda: And there are some, especially within Zanu PF who say not counting the sham Presidential run off, the difference between the two parties vote-wise was not significantly great. Does that count where the US is concerned?

McGee: It doesn’t matter if it counts with the US Violet, it only matters if it counts with the people of Zimbabwe. And the people of Zimbabwe have repudiated policies and practises of this current government and that is why we find ourselves now looking at a power sharing agreement. And for the people of Zimbabwe to have their will expressed the government needs to move forward. We need to get on, we need to form a cabinet, we need to form a government that can start doing things for the people of Zimbabwe.

Gonda: What about the relationship between the Mugabe regime and the US government. How is it like? For example there is an allegation that you recently played golf with Mr Tsvangirai and that Mr Mugabe was very unhappy about this. What is your comment to this?

McGee: I played golf with Morgan Tsvangirai? That is not an allegation, that is an absolute fact. I did play golf with Morgan Tsvangirai and I have played golf with Morgan Tsvangirai before and I will continue to play golf with Morgan Tsvangirai. Morgan and I don’t talk about matters of State on the golf course, we talk about our poor golf swings (both laugh).

And secondly Morgan Tsvangirai is the Prime Minister designate of the government of Zimbabwe. I thought the idea behind diplomatic involvement in any country, any country was to be involved with the government and the people who occupy seats in government in that particular country. So I have no idea what President Mugabe was talking about when he says he was angry that I played golf with Morgan Tsvangirai, that is foolishness.

Gonda: Is it true that he accused you of interfering in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs because you were playing golf with Mr Tsvangirai?

McGee: President Mugabe doesn’t speak to me so I have no idea. I get that second hand that he did make that statement. I will take it at face value that it’s true.

Gonda: On the other hand don’t you think that given the delicate nature of the current discussions that perhaps it was not wise to be playing golf at this particular time -with Mr Tsvangirai?

McGee: Again despite the fact that people think we work 24 hours a day, we don’t. We do need to unwind and have some social relaxation. I enjoy playing golf with Morgan Tsvangirai. He is a good golfer, he is new to the game. I have been playing the game of golf for almost 50 years and Morgan and I find this an opportunity to walk and talk for four hours. Again we are not talking matters of State, we are talking about our poor golf swing.

Gonda: Do you offer the same invitation to some of the political leaders, I know you don’t talk to Mr Mugabe but what about the other political leaders?

McGee: You know I have had the chance to play golf with some of the leading figures here in Zimbabwe and I am not going to mention names because maybe they don’t want it known that I play golf with them. But let’s let it suffice to say that I have played golf with some of the leading Zanu PF political figures in this country.

Gonda: Ok. Now you used to go around the volatile areas in Zimbabwe during and after the elections. Do you see any significant difference on the ground since the political parties signed the power sharing agreement?

McGee: Well even before then Violet we were starting to see a down swing in the violence around the country but that’s not to say that its totally stopped. We still get reports, we still have anecdotal evidence that violence although at a decreased level continues here in Zimbabwe. We know for a fact that the quasi military camps that were manned by the war veterans and the youth brigades in the countryside – many of those camps are still open. We don’t know how active those camps are but the fact that they are still open creates concern for us, and if people had entered into these negotiations in good faith that is the first thing that should have stopped – these torture camps where people are tortured for nothing more than their political beliefs.

Gonda: And from your observations has the hate speech by Zanu PF officials and even by the state media stopped? And is the MDC, for example, getting decent media coverage now?

McGee: The answer to your question is no, it has not stopped. There is still too much divisive speech by the media here. The media coverage of the MDC is very, very lopsided, very negative. Its maybe slowly, slowly changing but at the end of the day I don’t see much changing in this country as long as we have this type of major division.

Gonda: And food has been a priority of yours, and the distribution of food. Are things easier? Is food now being distributed in a fair manner and do you have access now?

McGee: No. Again the answer to your question is NO. It’s better than it was before. The ban on NGOs has been lifted but that ban created so many problems Violet. It threw us so far behind in our scheduled programmes to deliver food to the people of Zimbabwe. If you remember I just told you that we are putting over US$200million into food assistance for Zimbabwe. Now you can imagine that is a lot of food assistance to a country the size of Zimbabwe. So we have a problem of no.1: Identifying the people who require food assistance and then no.2: getting this food assistance to the people.

This artificial ban on NGOs that was in place for weeks has thrown us woefully behind on our schedule and we are now entering the most critical part of the year where we should be distributing food and we are still out there trying to identify people to send the food along to. So this ban has continuously created problems for us and our food distribution problem.

Gonda: And how coordinated is the donor response to the situation in Zimbabwe? Because there is this danger that some donors may respond differently, and so will this inertia affect the US’s position if ever it does occur?

McGee: I think the donor response is excellent here in Zimbabwe. I have an excellent US AID unit headed by Karen Freeman here in Zimbabwe. And Karen coordinates closely with her colleagues from the European Union, from the Japanese, the Canadians and all other countries who are involved in food distribution here in Zimbabwe. We want to make certain that there is no overlapping. We are not all trying to go to the same area – you know feed 500 people while another 1000 are starving somewhere else. So there is a huge amount of donor coordination and we expect that type of coordination to continue into the future.

Gonda: It is feared that the rise of the cost of food in the world market will mean that donors will pledge less and less. Do you agree with this?

McGee: We will have to wait and see how that plays out. I have heard the World Food Programme talking about asking for more pledges for food around the world and unfortunately there are more and more hot spots around the world either due to natural or man-made disasters where people are starving.

So the situation in Zimbabwe is a man-made situation. It’s the poor policies of this government that have led to starvation in Zimbabwe. And what we need is a change in policy, a change in direction that will allow the great farmers – and there are hundreds and thousands of great small farmers here in Zimbabwe – to get out there and do what they do, which is grow food.

Gonda: And while we wait to see what the political parties or the politicians do about the problems in Zimbabwe, will the global financial crisis affect what the United States is willing to give Zimbabwe?

McGee: I can’t answer, that is a political question Violet and that is going to have to be answered by someone in the political realm. Right now what we see is this: We have budgets. Our budgets are adequate to provide assistance to Zimbabwe this year. I have no idea what our budget will look like next year. We will have to wait until then to find out, but I can guarantee you this: We, my embassy will continue to go and fight for funding to assist in humanitarian needs for the people of Zimbabwe.

Gonda: I don’t know if you can answer this – perhaps it’s a political question too – but what leverage does the pending US elections have on the US’s push for democracy in Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole?

McGee: I think no matter which candidate wins the elections in the United States the emphasis on Africa will remain strong. The United States has redoubled under President Bush its commitment to move forward and provide assistance to Africa. You know we are much more pragmatic with this right now. The United States is saying Africans do need to come up with solutions for their own countries, but at the same time where they need assistance we are willing to step in and provide that assistance as long as we know that assistance is being used correctly and wisely. That the assistance is being used to help advance the people of any particular country and the same thing can happen in Zimbabwe

Gonda: Right, and you have said before that you are taking a ‘wait and see approach.’ But does it have a time line?

McGee: It has a time line and I think the first time line is one that needs to be established by the people of Zimbabwe. You know this impasse and establishing a government, naming key ministries, naming ministers period. The people of Zimbabwe need to step forward and say this needs to be resolved and this needs to be resolved right now. Once that has happened we would like to see the plans of this new government; say a one month, three month, six month plan established by the government with benchmarks that we can come in and take a look at – the international community – and say ‘you have made progress in ending corruption, you have made progress in restoring a free market economy to this country. You have made progress in returning the rule of law to Zimbabwe.’

And if we can look at those markers and say that progress has been made in one month, three months, six months then we will be ready to start making movements for the removal of sanctions and other issues.

Gonda: And do you have a final word?

McGee: My final word is let’s respect the people of Zimbabwe. They voted, they come out in large numbers and voted in March and here we are all the way into the first week of October and this impasse is still with us. The country needs to move forward and the only way the country is going to move forward is if both political parties continue in good faith to look out for the people of Zimbabwe. That is our bottom line.

Gonda: Ambassador McGee thank you very much for speaking on the programme Hot Seat.

McGee: Thanks Violet my pleasure as usual.

Comments and feedback can be sent to violet@swradioafrica.com