A tangled web
June 15, 2005 | More from Don Murray
Don Murray is one of the most prolific of the CBC's foreign correspondents, filing hundreds of reports - in French and English - from China, Europe, the Middle East and the Soviet Union. He is currently based in London as the senior European correspondent for CBC Television News.
During his 30 years with CBC, Murray has covered a multitude of major stories, including the advent of perestroika and glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wrote A Democracy of Despots, a book documenting that collapse and the rebirth of Russia. While in Berlin, he covered the peace agreement ending the war in Bosnia and, in London, covered the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. He authored Family Wars, a major feature article for the International Journal paralleling the troubles in Northern Ireland and the war in Bosnia. In recent years he has covered the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Zimbabwe the poor were tearing down their shacks to avoid a worse fate while the Catholic archbishop prayed for the death of a dictator.
In London, Africa was on the menu at breakfast and lunch as finance ministers from the world's richest nations tried to decide how much Third World debt they could swallow. A great deal, as it turned out.
Both events were remarkable. Both received moderate to light media coverage in Canada and Europe, and very little at all in the United States.
In Zimbabwe the news was both astonishing and bad. According to the UN, at least 200,000 and possibly up to two million people have been torn from their homes and left in the street by a manmade cyclone.
The man is Robert Mugabe, the president of the country. He sent his police into suburbs of Zimbabwe's major cities to smash and burn shanty dwellings and arrest "illegal" traders, and this in the middle of Zimbabwe's winter.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe addresses supporters of his ZANU-PF party, March 30, 2005
His forces called the operation "Clean up the Rubbish." Mugabe himself said the goal was "to restore sanity."
The "rubbish" referred to appears to be human beings, hundreds of thousands of them. They are now living in the streets as temperatures in the evening drop towards zero. As the cyclone of official retribution approached, many tore down their dwellings themselves to try to save the wood and other materials to build makeshift shelters elsewhere.
From time to time fighter jets flew overhead. They were Chinese-made and now belong to the Zimbabwe air force. China is Mugabe's newest friend. It provided money and materials to build his new presidential palace. No one is about to tear that dwelling down.
Meanwhile, unemployment runs at 70 per cent in Mugabe's land and food is scarce. The UN World Food Program estimates the country will need more than one million tonnes of food aid to feed hundreds of thousands of people who will otherwise go hungry. And this in a country that once exported food to its neighbours.
Zimbabwe will not qualify for debt relief despite its desperate circumstances. But 18 other very poor countries, most of them African, will. Somewhat to the surprise of the man pushing for the deal, the G-7 finance ministers came up with a plan to wipe out all the debt by those countries to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The man was Gordon Brown, Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, a grand title that cloaks his finance function in ermine. He had had the solid support of Canada ("We were among the twisters, not the twistees," said Canada's Ralph Goodale of the behind-the-scenes arm wrestling), and the grudging backing of Washington.
But France, Germany and Japan had been skeptical, believing the money no longer paid in interest by many regimes would end up in bigwigs' pockets. They reluctantly signed on at the last minute.
Brown's image is that of a driven, dour Scot. He rises at 6 a.m. to read economic reports. In the hour of this unexpected breakthrough, he was faithful to his image, unsmiling and spitting out facts and figures with all the bonhomie of an irritated bear.
His American counterpart, John Snow, was more conscious of the PR demands of the occasion. He called the accord "historic" and, for good measure, "the biggest debt relief deal in history."
It is big; it cancels $50 billion in debt owed by the 18 poorest countries in the world. In practical terms, this means they won't be paying around $2 billion a year in interest to the World Bank and the IMF. Not much, divided 18 ways, you might think. But the $100 million a year it saves Tanzania is more than that country spends annually on its entire education system.
The second paragraph of the ministers' statement set out the conditions to qualify for debt relief. Countries had to "tackle corruption, boost private-sector development and eliminate impediments to private investment, both domestic and foreign."
This, in the jargon, is conditionality. It slams the door on Zimbabwe but Robert Mugabe doesn't care. With friends in Beijing and the tacit backing of South Africa's president Thabo Mbeki, he's invulnerable to other foreign pressure.
Political opponents believe his "Clean up the Rubbish" campaign is part of a strategy to reduce pressure from within. Mugabe's government says those now homeless will be shipped back to the countryside. It's probably no coincidence that big cities voted massively against Mugabe's party in the recent legislative elections. If there's a popular uprising against the man who's been running the country for 25 years, it would start in the cities.
But there's little chance of that. The Roman Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, called in March for a peaceful uprising to replace Mugabe. Now he believes it would be suicidal. The response from the authorities would be bloody. Now the archbishop simply kneels and asks for the demise of the 81-year-old Mugabe. "We're all praying that the Lord will soon take him away."
But back to London. The only time Gordon Brown became animated was in response to a question from an outraged Congolese journalist. The journalist asked how the rich countries could reward regimes that had invaded his country, prolonging a dreadful internal war that has killed up to four million people.
He was referring to Rwanda and Uganda, which have troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo (so did Zimbabwe). They're there ostensibly to keep the peace but each of the military contingents in the mineral-rich country has carved out a territory from which wealth is illegally exported. Generals and politicians get rich. Why reward the "culprits," the journalist asked.
Brown insisted the new rules would be applied severely. Corruption would be rooted out. It sounded sincere but the real answer lay elsewhere. Uganda and Rwanda have followed the G7-IMF rules, selling off state monopolies (often for laughable prices) and imposing "user fees" in the education and health sectors.
Thus they have been "boosting private sector development." What they do as "peacekeepers," off-stage so to speak, appears to be of no concern to international bankers.
Africa is a tangled, bloody web.
But, of course, much less interesting than the Michael Jackson trial.