Every time Robert Mugabe travels abroad he takes two well-guarded suitcases containing $4 million in cash. And for a 92-year-old he is on the road a great deal, reluctant perhaps to face the galloping breakdown of Zimbabwe. There are rarely any winners from such chaos: not Mugabe, despite his looting of state coffers, not his wife and putative successor Grace, and certainly not the Zimbabweans themselves. Only one beneficiary stands out: Beijing.
China lays claim to being a global power but all too often follows the gambling instincts of a hedge fund manager. Mugabe, it calculates, is not long for this world. He will leave behind a country that is both ruined and angry. Having experienced one of the world’s worst cases of hyperinflation, Zimbabwe effectively adopted the US dollar as its national currency in 2009. Now those dollars are running out, wages are unpaid, supermarkets cannot settle bills from suppliers, medicines are disappearing from the pharmacies and the banks are all but bust.
Mugabe, midway through his seventh presidential term, is frail and Zimbabweans are increasingly vocal about the failures of his Zanu (PF) party. As he celebrated his birthday this year at a cost of $800,000 (“Mugabe’s birthday,” said one local newspaper, “is like that of Jesus Christ”) the battle for the succession was all too evident. One faction is dubbed Team Lacoste because its leader, backed by the army and security services, is Emmerson “Crocodile” Mnangagwa. The other faction, led by the dedicated shopper Grace Mugabe, is called the G40, the “G” presumably not standing for Gucci, her favourite brand.
It looks as if the Mugabe endgame could get nasty. Ordinary Zimbabweans, not just oppositionists, are impatient for the president to start an orderly succession — and for the party to end the economic crisis, which could descend into a humanitarian black hole.
Yet seen from Beijing, the Mugabe era need not end in a bloodbath. Its modest economy could, with the help of a protective power and a credible government, be turned into a going concern. Zimbabwe may not have the oil that has made some African states interesting for China but it has copper, platinum and diamonds. What is more appealing for China as it seeks more nuance in its Africa strategy is its very vulnerability and isolation from the West. With artful diplomacy and infusions of cash, China could make Zimbabwe into its first modern colony. If a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe became a success, it would not just cock a snook at Britain and the US but make the case for a Chinese model of development.
For that to happen the transition of power after Mugabe would have to be smooth rather than vicious. President Xi Jinping dropped by on Zimbabwe last December, promising (as he did in Britain, another Chinese supplicant) multibillion-dollar investments. Xi made clear that China was bonded to Mugabe by a shared revolutionary history: it bankrolled the former guerrilla leader’s fighters during the 1979 Rhodesian Bush War, helped to block Mugabe’s Soviet-backed rivals and when Mugabe took power in 1980 built the national sports stadium, hospitals and a power station. Crucially, it became Mugabe’s largest arms supplier.
Xi’s subliminal message was thus: we will look after you and your own. If the going gets tough, no one else — certainly not Britain — will offer you refuge. There is little doubt in the minds of Zim-watchers that Grace, her family and ill-gotten fortune will be welcomed by China if she loses the power struggle. She has already bought property in Hong Kong (where Mugabe’s daughter Bona studies) and the New Territories. Her first husband was Zimbabwe’s military attaché to Beijing, well connected to senior Chinese officers.
The safety net goes further: the Chinese currency, the yuan, will be adopted as legal tender by Zimbabwe. And Beijing is writing off about $40 million of debt. Gone are the days when the Wild Geese or Simon Mann-style mercenaries would be part of the equation after the death of an unloved African leader.
Britain will be keeping its head down: China has by far the strongest international hand. That doesn’t stop Mugabe blaming the British and the Americans for trying to spread division in Zanu (PF). The truth is of course that the party is managing its disintegration just fine by itself.
China wants to prove a point: that its no-strings aid policy towards Africa (and in particular with dictatorships sanctioned by the West because of their hideous human rights records) is not just an act of cynicism designed to snare access to oil and raw materials. Rather, Africa has engaged its imperial imagination. Chinese trade with Africa in 2002 was worth $13 billion; a decade later it had soared to $180 billion.
It has, in a rather old-fashioned way, decided to capture a foothold in the dark continent. Weren’t Chinese newspapers describing Britain as a clapped-out colonial power only a few months ago? Welcome to the world of imperialist hypocrisy, President Xi.
Mugabe could give China its first colony
Author: Roger Boyes
Source: The Times