Boris Johnson, mocker of African “piccaninny” children and their “watermelon smiles”, became Prime Minister of Britain on Wednesday. On hearing the news, supporters of two political parties in an African land far, far away, fought each other to claim him as their best friend.
“Johnson’s rise opportunity for re-engagement,” the State-controlled Herald wrote, in an editorial under a picture of Foreign Affairs Minister SB Moyo meeting Boris in London in April 2018.
“Overall, we anticipate that Britain and Mr Johnson will be guided by the willingness by Zimbabwe to be reintegrated into the global family of nations,” The Herald said.
On Twitter, President Emmerson Mnangagwa congratulated Boris, saying he looked forward to “building ever closer ties between our two nations”. He then wrote a letter, giving “assurances of my highest and most respectful consideration”.
The MDC Alliance twitter account posted a picture of Nelson Chamisa exchanging a handshake with Boris during the MDC leader’s visit to London last May. The caption said this was Boris meeting “Zimbabwe’s people’s President”.
Later, Chamisa himself posted the same picture, saying “Zimbabweans forever cherish our special relationship with the people of Britain”.
Tweets by both Chamisa and Mnangagwa were not out of place among similar messages from other politicians from all around the world. It’s the norm. However, the reaction from their supporters was telling. Boris is ours, they shouted at each other.
“Boris will be very tough on Zanu-PF. This is a huge win for the MDC,” one said.
“Well done my President ED,” said another.
“Please help us put Chamisa as State President, Sir. ED is illegitimate Sir,” one pleaded.
“Conservatives and ZANU-PF work well together,” another hopeful Mnangagwa supporter said.
The boy is mine
Apart from posting pictures of SB Moyo with Boris, Pro-Zanu-PF commentators spread links to 2018 articles in which Boris, then British foreign secretary, said he would back Zimbabwe’s readmission into the Commonwealth, should it deliver a clean election. There were also pictures of Patrick Chinamasa exchanging wide grins with Boris in February 2018. Evidence, we were told, that Boris was “ours”.
It was a throwback to Brandy and Monica. The boy is mine, not yours. But mine. Not yours. But mine. Not yours.
But fighting for the affections and endorsement of a foreign leader is the pastime of Zimbabwe’s sharply divided political figures and their supporters. A foreign ambassador or political leader must pick a side in Zimbabwe. They must take a break from whatever it is they are supposed to be doing in their own countries, and immerse themselves in the mud pit that is Zimbabwean politics.
Zimbabwe, it seems, must be the centre of everything that every world leader says or does. Any news anywhere in the world must, somehow, be squeezed to fit into the frame of Zimbabwe’s tiring game of one-upmanship.
The fellow on TV
The problem? The world has moved on from when Zimbabwe was all the rage in world news. Johnson himself has his plate full, hoping to deliver Brexit in three months and defeat Jeremy Corbyn.
The story is told that Boris and SB Moyo hit it off nicely when they met in London. “You’re the fellow on TV,” Boris quipped, according to those present.
In the event that Johnson still remembers that meeting at all, and it’s possible he does not, the terrain has changed significantly since then. Besides, who can trust Boris Johnson?
As the French paper Le Monde put it this week, Boris was “known for his eccentricity, his elastic positions”. And Der Spiegel in Germany said “he’ll start breaking his promises tomorrow”.
For a man so erratic, ZANU-PF can’t bank on old alliances. An embarrassing refrain often used by Mnangagwa is that Conservative Prime Ministers, and female ones especially, have been friendlier to his party than Labour. Instead of hoping for Boris to put in a good word for Zimbabwe to be readmitted into the Commonwealth, ZANU-PF and its backers should focus on the deepening economic crisis and on ED’s floundering attempts to deliver on his election promises.
Besides, ZANU-PF still have to deal with a strong lobby in the UK, such as the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Zimbabwe, which has been led by MP Kate Hoey, a Boris fan long obsessed with Zimbabwe.
Similarly, the MDC supporters should not hope pictures and meetings with Boris will magically teleport them back to the 2000s when the party had the UK’s unconditional backing. As David Coltart admitted to an interviewer in Gweru in May, international interest in Zimbabwe is not what it used to be.
Boris, white farmers, and Mugabe’s ‘moral ugliness’
Boris’ interest in Zimbabwe barely goes beyond his views on race. He has visited Zimbabwe before. His account of his visit is only of “an old ex-Rhodesian couple whose family came from near London”, and how he remembers them “physically trembling with fear of the ZANU-PF thugs who were waiting at the gate”.
In 2015, he wrote a long piece on the “moral ugliness” of Robert Mugabe’s extravagant birthday party, which he described as “scenes reminiscent of the more disgusting and luxurious behaviour of the emperor Commodus”.
Of Zimbabwe itself, he said “if you go there you see the ravages of HIV, the emaciated figures standing listlessly on street corners”.
None of this was out of any genuine concern for Zimbabwe; the country was just a prop, a whip in his hand to use against Labour ahead of UK elections. He accused Blair and Labour of turning backs on white farmers, giving Mugabe an excuse to “launch a racist tyranny”.
This was Boris in full Native Commissioner mode, pith hat and all. Unsurprising. After all, he once said the “best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty”.
Zimbabwe: A country deluded
When Donald Trump mumbles just six words to brush off a reporter asking him about Zimbabwe – “We’re looking at Zimbabwe right now” – and yet still elicit screaming headlines and commentary in Zimbabwe, you realise this is a nation with an incurable, inflated sense of self-worth.
Yet, Trump’s new Africa policy announced by John Bolton just last December, is – beneath all the diplo-speak – basically a long middle finger to the continent; from governments to NGOs.
Zimbabwe is a nation burdened by many delusions. Delusions about its place and geopolitical relevance in the world, and delusions that world leaders spend sleepless nights worrying about Zimbabwe.
There are delusions that there is a saviour out there waiting to save Zimbabwe. The delusions that some world leader will wake up to endorse one leader over the other over there in Zimbabwe, then offer the country billions in bailout money and forgive all its debts.
And so, high on all these delusions, we pester foreign leaders for their attention and endorsement. We claim them as our friends, and pore over every statement they make to insert ourselves into it. Our Zimbabwean exceptionalism kicks in; the idea that we are special, better than others.
This, even in this same world where Paul Biya gets IMF loans while butchering half of Cameroon, and our regional peers are moving on, imperfect as they all are, warts and all.
So, no. It’s unlikely that Boris has “Zimbabwe issue” at the top of his full in-tray. He would be amused to find out that there’s a fight for his affection in Zimbabwe.
Edson Zvobgo once said of Zimbabwe: “We have behaved as if the world owes us a living. It does not.”
Zimbabwe needs to sort itself out. Her people need to let go of their very many delusions and face the truth; the world is busy.