He gets the reaction of the US Embassy spokesperson in Harare, Sharon Hudson Dean, political commentator Msekiwa Makwanya and journalist Innocent Chofamba Sithole. What is the likely fall out from the blunt assessments made by former Ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell?
Interview broadcast 29 November 2010
Lance Guma: Hallo Zimbabwe and welcome to this special edition of Behind the Headlines where we focus on the leakage of confidential US government documents by the website Wikileaks on Sunday.
For those not familiar with the Wikileaks, this is an international non-profit media organisation that publishes submissions of otherwise unavailable documents from anonymous sources and leaks. Its website, launched in 2006, is run by the Sunshine Press and within a year of its launch, the site claimed a data base that had grown to more than one point two million documents.
Our focus on Behind the Headlines is a confidential 2007 diplomatic cable from the then out-going American ambassador to Zimbabwe, Christopher Dell in which he outlines his views of Zimbabwe’s prospects at the time that was eight months ahead of the 2008 elections.
Ambassador Dell gave blunt assessments of key political figures in Zimbabwe. This included Mugabe, Tsvangirai, Mutambara, Welshman Ncube, Tendai Biti, Nelson Chamisa and the mediation efforts of former South African president, Thabo Mbeki. To get the ball rolling, I spoke to Sharon Hudson Dean, the spokesperson at the US embassy in Harare and asked her what reaction to the leakage has been.
Sharon Hudson-Dean: Well in general we are following this matter closely. As a matter of policy we do not comment on documents that purport to contain classified information and we do strongly condemn the deliberate and unauthorised disclosure of classified material by individuals or organisations. This disclosure can put lives at risk and it can jeopardise our national security.
Guma: Now we are told this is a confidential 2007 diplomatic cable; for most of our listeners – what is a diplomatic cable just to put them in the know?
Hudson-Dean: Well I cannot speak to the authenticity of any particular document that may or may not be in the press but I can tell you a little bit about the diplomatic community’s practice of cable writing. Cables reflect the internal day-to-day analysis and candid assessments that feed into foreign relations. They are often preliminary, they can be incomplete expressions of foreign policy so I cannot comment on any particular document and I’m not meaning to do that but I would note that they by themselves don’t have standing nor are they a reflection of US policy.
Guma: But they do contribute in a sense to foreign policy in the sense that these are observations and general advice from your people on the ground.
Hudson-Dean: It is part of a conversation. This is something that all diplomatic missions for any country do with their capital cities.
Guma: OK now I’m sure the state media in Zimbabwe are going to be having a field day with this story and linking it to what they have always been reporting that the US government has a regime change agenda. How would you react to that sort of slant to their story?
Hudson-Dean: Well our policy is very clear and I would echo what Ambassador (Charles) Ray has been saying repeatedly when he speaks in public or to the media – that the United States supports development and a better future for Zimbabweans.
We are fully behind efforts to improve conditions in this country whether it be in the area of health like for instance this week we will celebrate World AIDS Day and we look forward to highlighting successes and also noting what needs to be done, also in terms of programmes relating to agriculture or trade, things like that.
We strongly support a better future for Zimbabwe, we do feel that changes in Zimbabwe need to be made by Zimbabweans and that is something that Ambassador Ray has said repeatedly – these are decisions that Zimbabweans must make and that is our policy.
Guma: And just finally what is your view as a government or maybe as an embassy to the current coalition government? Would you say it was a mistake for the MDC, how do you view it?
Hudson-Dean: As a diplomat I can’t give you an analysis of the local politics. I would just say again, the choices in politics in Zimbabwe must be made by Zimbabweans and we do support democratic processes, we support open sharing and flow of information and we support the establishment of solid democratic institutions that allow Zimbabwean citizens to make those choices.
Guma: Well that was Sharon Hudson Dean, the spokesperson at the US embassy in Harare. What we did next was speak to political analyst Msekiwa Makwanya and I first asked him for his take on the matter.
Msekiwa Makwanya: I think it will put different stakeholders in a very difficult position and some maybe severely compromised but I would say that this clearly is a frank assessment of a particular player, in this case the United States diplomatic sources and it would be very unfortunate if we were too read too much because some of the things people already knew anyway and the suspicions that will come out of this or after this may simply create a diplomatic problem but I don’t think a political crisis.
Guma: I’m sure a lot of our listeners will have heard – I did speak to the US Embassy, that’s Sharon Hudson Dean, the US Embassy spokesperson and she’s saying the views of the former ambassador Christopher Dell do not reflect US foreign policy. Do you think that will be enough to mitigate the damage from this?
Makwanya: I think Ambassador Dell had always made his views very clear in terms of Zimbabwe and where things were going and I would think that if one is to look at who informs the US policy its actually their man on the ground and what obviously the embassy may say in Zimbabwe may not necessarily be something that people will agree with but in essence, these are views for goodness sake that are being expressed by individuals and is just a collection, it’s not even a synthesis or an analysis of the overall policy – on that point I agree.
Guma: It will be a Godsend of course for the state media, they’ve always argued the US is seeking a regime change agenda. Do you think this diplomatic cable as they’re calling it will give them sufficient oxygen to make their argument?
Makwanya: It does but it will not add any value to them because clearly this is what they’ve always said and that is what is being confirmed then I’m sure on that point they may think obviously that it does give them some credibility in what they’ve been saying all along. But despite that fact I think we ought to be clear on one aspect – I would feel that it’s more of association that they are going to make than a matter of fact. I think it’s going to be difficult to say out of context what exactly this information is supposed to mean.
Guma: Lets go into some of the assessments given by Dell. I’ll start off with Robert Mugabe. He says he “…has survived for so long because he is more clever and more ruthless than any other politician in Zimbabwe. To give the devil his due, he is a brilliant tactician and has long thrived on his ability to abruptly change the rules of the game, radicalize the political dynamic and force everyone else to react to his agenda.” What do you make of that?
Makwanya: My thinking is that Robert Mugabe is not acting alone in all this and I would imagine even Jesus Christ and his almighty power could not have done what is being credited to President Mugabe. That is an outfit that is a very sophisticated political machinery that has got so many players in it and I think there the embassy or the ambassador was trying to actually create a different picture of what I believe is happening on the ground and we cannot actually credit President Mugabe’s survival on his personal qualities. I think there are many more players there that are involved in his survival.
Guma: And the former ambassador, Christopher Dell, on Morgan Tsvangirai he says “…he is a brave, committed man and, by and large, a democrat. He is also the only player on the scene right now with real star quality and the ability to rally the masses.” But he says “Tsvangirai is also a flawed figure, not readily open to advice, indecisive and with questionable judgment in selecting those around him.” He goes on to say “He is the indispensable element for opposition success, but possibly an albatross around their necks once in power. In short, he is a kind of Lech Walesa character: Zimbabwe needs him, but should not rely on his executive abilities to lead the country’s recovery.” What do you make of that one?
Makwanya: I think that’s a harsh judgement on Morgan Tsvangirai really. The people that he is working with were given to him by Congress; of course I know there’s been talk about kitchen cabinet and advisers but we know there are so many people advising Prime Minister Tsvangirai. My view is that when you look at such a judgement I think it is misinformed in that we are all clear that no-one is indispensable in politics for instance and it simply sends a very wrong message to a party that is supposed to be a democratic party or outfit but it is also going to create further problems in the MDC because there will be a view that the United States doesn’t want Tsvangirai to be out of office which clearly defeats the whole point about leaders coming and going which is the culture that the MDC is trying to inculcate.
But we also have to respect that they also identify other people who are capable of leading within the same dossier so it is clear that there is an understanding that Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s qualities are extremely important for moving the country forward and we see this in the way our people judged Tsvangirai in the 2008 election because he did win that election although he didn’t win outrightly but there’s clear truth in his qualities. In fact there are more positives than weaknesses if you are to put it that way but everyone else has got their witness, you can’t really find anyone who is perfect.
Guma: And former ambassador Christopher Dell on Arthur Mutambara the leader of the MDC-M, he says of Mutambara “…he is young and ambitious, attracted to radical, anti-western rhetoric and smart as a whip. But, in many respects he’s a light-weight who has spent too much time reading U.S. campaign messaging manuals and too little thinking about the real issues.”
Makwanya: I think that’s saying it as it is. I think that’s an honest assessment and that is being said by everyone involved when you look at the MDC, they are worried about some of the things, statements he does that point towards some issues of maturity there. I think they really were spot on and there they are clear that he’s been obviously following an American-style of doing things which clearly is Americanised but I think they are spot on on that one.
Guma: Welshman Ncube, the secretary general of the Mutambara faction Ambassador Dell says he “…has proven to be a deeply divisive and destructive player in the opposition ranks and the sooner he is pushed off the stage, the better. But he is useful to many, including the regime and South Africa, so is probably a cross to be borne for some time yet.” Harsh criticism?
Makwanya: I think yes in some sense I would tend to say that I think there is something positive that Welshman has done in the transitional arrangement that the country is going through particularly his legalistic and sharp intellectual clarity there on what’s been happening but if parties, to be honest, I think in the MDC they have generally said he’s been very divisive and I think you can’t really argue with that one.
It may sound harsh in the sense that he doesn’t give him any credit which I think is unfair because he has had to, he has been quite smart in some of the ways he has dealt with the political scenario in Zimbabwe particularly during the negotiations. I think he did play some role there.
Guma: Why is there this view though that he is a polarising figure?
Makwanya: I think because he tends to say it as it is. He is not a politician, he is a…well, he’s not a politician and that is his major problem. Welshman will say it is as it is, he doesn’t care whether this really will work in favour of the general political direction that some of his colleagues may be pursuing.
So I think you’ve heard him say we want Kariba Draft at a time when everyone was saying no that really wouldn’t be the proper way to go. So he is the kind of person who is basically honest but certainly not a politician and because of that I think sometimes he is not an effective partner when you are dealing with very difficult circumstances especially the one that ZANU PF and the MDC found themselves in.
Guma: And commenting lastly on the government of national unity brokered of course by South African president, or former South African president Thabo Mbeki Ambassador Dell says “Mbeki has always favoured stability and in his mind this means a ZANU-PF-led government of national unity, with perhaps a few MDC additions. This solution is more likely to prolong than resolve the crisis and we must guard against letting Pretoria dictate an outcome which perpetuates the status quo at the expense of real change and reform.” Damning indictment of the GNU there?
Makwanya: It is but my view is that if anything, South Africa cannot be accused of imposing. They maybe accused of preventing say the MDC from coming into outright power but they can’t be accused of imposing a solution because you have to accept that they’ve always favoured a non-intervention approach which really has not favoured the weaker side of the coalition which is the MDC.
I think the view was that South Africa should use its might and force which it has resisted all the time but I think that South Africa has been weak to a point of not directly, which again is something that South Africa has always said is because of their belief in the people of Zimbabwe deciding on their own and we know when you say the people of Zimbabwe deciding you mean to say that the powerful ones will decide.
Guma: That’s political analyst Msekiwa Makwanya giving us his take on the matter. Now to round up the programme I did speak to Zimbabwean journalist Innocent Chifamba Sithole and basically got him to summarise for us this breaking story.
Innocent Chofamba Sithole: There’s no love lost between President Mugabe and ZANU PF and his government and the US government or its embassy and so I don’t think they are shocked by Ambassador Dell’s descriptions of both themselves and the situation in the country or the likely scenarios that he paints, so there’s nothing to go on there really.
But I think the revelations embarrassed the MDC more than they do their political adversary, the unity government because Ambassador Dell gives a candid assessment of the capabilities of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and he says he is a figure who is more likely going to be useful as a rallying point for the opposition to get them into power but can’t really be counted on to lead the country to recovery.
And there’s always been niggling doubts about the capabilities of the Prime Minister himself and then Ambassador Dell also goes in to say that there’s not much depth within the MDC apart say from Nelson Chamisa and Tendai Biti. That is an indictment because the US is a strong ally of the MDC parties and they know them in and out because they have a close relationship and if they should be passing such judgement on key figures within the opposition movement or within the MDC itself it is quite damning an assessment.
Likewise, the characterisation of Professor Arthur Mutambara, the leader of MDC-M and his secretary general Welshman Ncube – Ambassador Dell passed some very unflattering remarks on the two gentlemen and I do not think that relations between the MDC-M and the US embassy or at least the US government if we should take Ambassador Dell’s views as representative of his country’s policy, I don’t think relations between those two are very warm.
Guma: It’s a frustrating one for the MDC because they can’t exactly lash out in anger and accuse the US embassy or the out-going ambassador or former Ambassador Dell of undermining them because this is communication which was never meant to be public and was only leaked by the Wikileaks website so what do they do in the face of this?
Sithole: I don’t know what kind of damage limitation they can move onto although as you rightly point out it is inappropriate for them to lash out because as you say, this is not public communication but a leak and also this is not US policy but this is Ambassador Dell’s private briefing to his government and that is not US policy so it is difficult there for them to respond.
But I think they would have to find a way of at least responding to the criticisms within the public domain, perhaps maybe by subtly letting people know or trying to clear the impression made that their leader isn’t quite capable to run the country as executive prime minister or president or that their party’s leadership has a serious dearth of whether intellectual or technocratic depth – they have to do something to respond to those damaging allegations.
Guma: I did see comment from the MDC and I was told they were waiting for official communication from the US government on this matter before shooting from the hip as it were and that they would give their response in due time. Do you think that’s the best way forward?
Sithole: Yes that is, they obviously need to take a very measured approach. They are dealing with, the issues are very sensitive because the allegations themselves are quite damaging on the one hand and secondly they have a very strong relationship with the US embassy and the US government.
Their party president, Morgan Tsvangirai has met President Barack Obama, they’ve met high, people at high level of the US government and so they’ve got very close ties, so they want to complain I’m sure but they can’t do it in a way that jeopardises that relationship, so this is why I think they are taking a measured approach.
Guma: That’s Zimbabwean journalist Innocent Chifamba Sithole rounding up the programme for us.
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