Did Robin cook Mugabe's goose on Zimbabwe land showdown?

By Kachi Okezie, USAfricaonline.com correspondent in London.
Additional reporting by George Agbakahi in San Francisco.

Exclusive reporting for USAfricaonline and The Black Business Journal

Robin Cook seemed to be in a triumphant mood this Easter, having as it were, gotten one up on Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. The British Foreign Secretary Cook is giving an impression of "victory" over President Mugabe in the Zimbabwean land dispute, which has led to a number of unfortunate deaths recently. If only. Robin Cook would have us believe that he has brought Robert Mugabe to heel by bringing him to the conference table to talk about, um... elections, ... rule of law... and - if time permits - land.

This is quite baffling. Anyone who has followed this issue over the past two weeks alone, whether or not privy to its historical antecedent, must be astounded by Mr. Cook's claim that he had "won" the support of eminent African leaders in bringing Mugabe to mediation.

USAfricaonline.com investigations confirm that Mugabe has sat at this conference table for a decade, waiting for Cook and those before him, to no avail. Indeed, some might argue that his recent behavior is attributable to the discomfort of a sore butt. Mediation has been Mugabe's own position for so long. It's the British government (the Tories before Cook) who spurned and frustrated such dialog for years and who must, ipso facto, bear responsibility for the recent consequences of reneging on the promised negotiations. When Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then known) gained independence from Britain after nearly a century of imperialist occupation, one of the key outstanding issues at the pre-independence confab was how to redress the blatant inequity of land ownership.

On the eve of independence, the landholding structure was such that White farmers representing less than one percent of the population 'owned' more than seventy-five per cent of the nation's arable land. Not surprisingly, the pre-independence conference held at Lancaster House in London was dominated by the land reform question. However, owing to the political expediency of the period, it was accepted that the train of independence shouldn't be delayed on the platform of land reform. Consequently, it was resolved to proceed with independence but to leave the land reform issue in the hands of a select bilateral contact group. Britain stands accused of consigning the matter to the 'pending' tray for too long. It's on record that a number of 'requests' were made by the Zimbabwean government over the past ten years to reopen the issue with a view to a permanent solution, but successive British governments have somehow managed to fend off such dialog.

It is against this backdrop that Mr. Cook's antics come in for examination. Of course we know the Tories, not Cook's New Labor, were in the driving for the better part of those ten years of ball juggling with the Zimbabwean land issue. What is therefore baffling is why Robin Cook refrains from saying the obvious. Why did he have to wait until it came to violence? Until Mugabe's swaggering jibes at Britain's double standards in preaching human rights and rule of law to Mugabe on the same day that Tony Blair was supping with Vladimir Putin, whose ongoing exploits in Chechnya mock those same principles? All he needed to do was sock it to his Tory predecessors, proclaim "Talks R Us" and he'll immediately be cast in the eyes of the world as a progressive, reformist, even "ethical" Foreign Minister.

Without relishing it, one is almost obliged to speculate that this whole debacle was no more than a gambit - a woefully unsuccessful one at that! - by the Cook regime at the Foreign Office to appear tough at the onset of a crisis, only to capitulate shortly afterwards when the dash hits the fan! Perhaps, it's time really to counsel New Labor that being fair, honest, open and willing to admit to mistakes can also endear them to the people, not only in Britain but the world over. And that a foreign policy conducted with posturing as an end in itself delivers nothing but humiliation for the government in terms of frequent climb-downs and 'U turns'.

In the present case, the cost of Britain's mishandling of the land reform question in Zimbabwe has been high. It created a law and order vacuum, which has been exploited by the war veterans who may not even approve of Mugabe's politics. It has bred some strange alliances such as White farmers in Zimbabwe openly signing up to opposition parties in something becoming of a marriage of convenience. In the aftermath, we believe that, contrary to Cook's view of the outcome, it is not Mugabe at all, but genuine democrats in Africa, together with the unfortunate farmers who lost their lives and livelihood, that are the real casualties of this sad episode. Yet again, as happened in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa and other parts of Africa, Britain's dithering has cost them substantial political, strategic and moral credibility. But we must be clear on this: it's Robin, not Robert, that's to blame.