Special Briefing on Zimbabwe's Current StateJames D. McGee, Ambassador
Robert Wood, Deputy Spokesman
Via Video Conference
November 20, 2008
MR. WOOD: Okay. Well, good morning, everyone. Good morning in Zimbabwe. Ambassador McGee, welcome. This is Robert Wood, the Deputy Spokesman. Ambassador McGee is here and he’s going to talk to you all about the political situation in Zimbabwe. So without further ado, I will turn it over to Ambassador McGee. Welcome, sir.
I think you’re all aware of the problems on the political side of the house. Let me just briefly go over those. There was an agreement signed for a unity government on September 15th of this year. Here we are, approximately eight, nine weeks later, and we still have no government formed here in Zimbabwe. The ZANU-PF, Robert Mugabe’s ruling party, has refused to act in good faith. They want to maintain all the power ministries, all the security ministries, as well as the financial ministries, under their control and give a group of smaller social ministries to the control of the MDC, the Movement for Democratic Change, headed by Morgan Tsvangirai.
This impasse seemed to have been broken a week and a half ago during the SADC summit that was held in Johannesburg. But still, even after that, we have not had any forward movement on that situation. And the political situation still remains at a critical impasse here in Zimbabwe.
I think what’s even more important today, though, is the humanitarian crisis that is following up from this political impasse. We’re seeing the humanitarian situation here in Zimbabwe really go down the tubes. Food situation, food and security situation, is extremely dire. Estimates from the United Nations community is 1.5 million Zimbabweans are at risk of food insecurity right now, and by the end of this crop season that number could jump up to over 5 million people.
The health system has totally collapsed. The three major hospitals here in Harare have closed. They’ve closed their doors for patients. We have anecdotal stories of clinics in the countryside being unable to operate. People are routinely turned away from clinics. And in some places, police have been stationed outside of clinics to ensure that no one can enter the premises. Doctors and nurses are not being paid. So that’s the reality of the situation on the ground here in Zimbabwe on this health system.
The water situation, sanitation situation, has gone through the ceiling. I just received a confirmed report about 15 minutes ago there are now 294 confirmed deaths from cholera here in Zimbabwe. There are over 1,200 confirmed cases of cholera, and another 2,500 unconfirmed cases of cholera. South Africa – the South African parliament just released a statement this afternoon, saying that they would provide assistance to Zimbabwe to try to deal with this cholera epidemic, because much of it is occurring on the border where Zimbabweans are trying to leave this country and make their way into South Africa.
So you can see the political situation has created a concurrent situation on the health and food side of the house that is, frankly, intolerable. So we have a very, very bad situation. I don’t see anything that’s going to alleviate these problems until the government of Robert Mugabe starts to act in good faith and deal with the Morgan Tsvangirai MDC faction in a true manner. They need to continue to look at what happened back on March 29th, when the people of Zimbabwe clearly expressed their will in the election and voted Morgan Tsvangirai with about 49 percent of the vote. And if you look at the three opposition parties, 56 percent of the people in Zimbabwe voted against Robert Mugabe and his stale policies in this country.
QUESTION: Sue Pleming from Reuters. Mr. Ambassador, you spoke about a cholera epidemic. What is the United – and the South Africans were looking to send in teams. What is the U.S. doing to try and ease the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe, and particularly the health crisis that has emerged?
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: We are working with the other – with the international community. We’re trying to – we’re bringing in assistance and trying to provide clean water. Cholera is something that is fairly easily treated. You need salt, you need sugar, you need clean water. Unfortunately, those are three things that the average Zimbabwean does not have. So we’re working with NGOs and local communities to try to provide water tablets, saline tablets, the things that are necessary to take care of the epidemic here in Zimbabwe.
QUESTION: Ambassador, do you feel that – this is Desmond Butler from the Associated Press. Do you feel that Mugabe has played you, given the September 15th agreement? Has he employed a strategy from the North Korea-Sudan playbook of pretend to play along with the – with the – what the international community wants and – but merely stalling for time and trying to hold on to power?
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: Desmond, I don’t think he’s even trying to be coy about this. He’s made it clear that he is not easily going to give up power here in Zimbabwe. The SADC, the Southern African Development Community, clearly came out with statements saying that the – there should be a unity government, there should be power sharing. And Mugabe has pretty much said that Morgan Tsvangirai would never sit in a government here in Zimbabwe with any true power.
So, no, I don’t think it’s really – he’s trying to play us. I think he’s just saying -- he’s snubbing his nose at the international community and pretty much saying this is my country and I’ll do with it as I please.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) need a new strategy for the problem?
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: I think the strategy here is we continue to put the pressure on Mugabe. We have our targeted sanctions. The European Union, the Australians, and many other likeminded Western nations are following us with those sanctions. The other issue is that we need to continue to work with SADC, the African Union, and the United Nations to continue to spin up their sanctions, their actions against this repressive regime headed by Robert Mugabe.
QUESTION: Lach Carmichael from AFP. I just wanted to follow up on Desmond’s question. How is he holding on to power? And what weaknesses do you see, if any, within his power structure? Are there any factions that are tilting away from him?
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: I’m sorry. I lost you for a second there. I missed the first part of your question.
QUESTION: Yeah. Can you analyze how he’s holding on to power? And if he has any weaknesses or any factions leaning away from him, can they be exploited? Is his grip on power as strong as it was, say, this time last year?
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: Actually, I think his grip on power may be actually stronger than it was this time last year. Mugabe continues to hang on to power through the political patronage system. There’s still a lot of money that flows through the formal and even more money that flows through the informal economies in this country. The president uses a lot of political patronage, political payoffs to ensure loyalty. He does have the absolute loyalty of the security – the heads of the security forces. Once we get down to little – to lower levels in the security forces, probably at the major or colonel level, and then in the enlisted ranks, that loyalty isn’t nearly as great. But those people who control those services are absolutely loyal to President Mugabe because, number one, they continue to receive funding from him, and number two, their hands are absolutely as bloody as his.
And as far as that goes, last year, there was a power play to strip Mugabe of power. One of the factions within his own ruling party, ZANU-PF, did make a power play. They lost. Frankly, they lost. Mugabe stood up to them. They backed down. And I believe that he is as strong today as he was a year ago and maybe even in the last five years.
QUESTION: Sylvie Lanteaume from AFP. So doesn’t – doesn’t it mean that, actually, you need another strategy? Because if he’s stronger than last year, it means that the actual – the current strategy doesn’t work.
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: The current strategy still takes in the reality on the ground. The people of Zimbabwe need to do something for themselves. The regional communities here need to step up and do something to help the people of Zimbabwe. The people of Zimbabwe are those who are suffering.
And as much as we can help them with the humanitarian assistance and as much as we try to assist them with our political stance against this country, if there is going to be meaningful change in Zimbabwe, it’s going to occur because of a peaceful democratic change here within the country.
QUESTION: Michelle Kelleman with National Public Radio. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about financial issues, the currency collapsing. I understand there’s all sorts of different currencies being used now. You were talking about his patronage systems. How does he – you know, where is he getting his money?
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: From a variety of sources. As I mentioned, the formal economy here – according to the latest World Bank estimates, the formal economy brings in about 1.8 billion U.S. dollars each year. And it estimates that about twice that much, or upwards of 3.5 billion, comes into the country through the informal economy. Inflation is at over 210 million percent. That’s a number that I can’t quite get my head around, but it’s high.
The ability of this government to continue to perk along is unbelievable. They do find ways to make certain that the – those who need payoffs receive those payoffs. Much of the economy has been dollarized. The government of the central bank about two months ago dropped ten zeroes off the currency. Seven of those zeroes have been added back on to the new currency as we speak today.
So the economic situation is bad. I am not going to say that it’s going to cave in on itself, because for whatever reason, it continues to move along successfully enough that they can continue to operate as a government.
QUESTION: The South African parliament decided today to – I think it was the parliament, anyway – to cease giving farm aid to Zimbabwe until there has – until there is a power-sharing deal. Do you think that is a useful tool? And also, you said you’re going to continue the same strategy. Does that mean that you’re going to impose more sanctions? And they don’t seem to have had much of an impact so far in changing the situation.
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: I have not seen the entire statement from the South African Government, so I’m not going to comment on that fully. What I do know is that the South Africans said that they would be willing to put additional money into the humanitarian situation here in Zimbabwe, especially as it affected those on the border areas and the agricultural inputs for the start of the planting season here in Zimbabwe.
As far as our sanctions are concerned, yeah, we do – we have additional sanctions that we are prepared to roll out if this political impasse continues. Right now, we’re – we continue to look carefully at what’s going on here in country, and we feel that unless something does happen in the very, very near future, we have no choice but to become more difficult, tougher on our sanctions.
Our sanctions really do work. I meet, with some regularity, with one of the top leaders here in Zimbabwe. And he has about $7 million of his funding that’s been frozen because of U.S. sanctions against Zimbabwe. And he starts out each and every meeting with the same thing: Where is my money? It hurts them. We have people who have children who were studying in Australia, studying in the United States. Those children have been removed from school. They are forced to return here to Zimbabwe. That hurts these folks. So these targeted sanctions do have an effect.
The government tries to spin it off that our sanctions are the cause of all the problems, the humanitarian issues here in Zimbabwe. That’s absolutely untrue. Our targeted sanctions do work, and they are effective against those that they’re against.
QUESTION: If you impose more targeted sanctions, are you going to give more food aid; for example, counter the sanctions on the bigwigs by providing more food aid to those in need?
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, our total assistance package this year has jumped up to about $218 million. And that’s a combination of food assistance and health assistance. And that number I don’t even think includes the amount of money that we’re giving to the Global Fund and other institutions for assistance to Zimbabwe. That’s direct interventions from the United States and the United States only.
QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit about your ability to get around, your ability to get aid in? Have there been any problems on that front?
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: I missed the first part of that question, Elise.
QUESTION: Oh, yes. I was wondering if you are having problems personally doing your job, getting around, and also the ability of the U.S. to get assistance into Zimbabwe.
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: Since the problems in the run-up to the run-off election in late June, we have not had any issues with traveling throughout the country. As a matter of fact, I just made a road trip from Johannesburg back here to Harare. I spent about a full day driving through the countryside of Zimbabwe after crossing the South African border into Zimbabwe, just to get an idea of what was going on out there, to see firsthand the situation in the countryside. And it’s grim. It’s very, very grim.
There are a lot of people sitting around doing absolutely nothing. There are a lot of distended bellies out there with small children. There are a lot of people picking absolutely sweet but non-nutritious foods off trees, trying to find anything to eat. When you pass through villages, it’s a total look of hopelessness on the people’s faces there. So the situation in the countryside is bad, and we’re starting to see the same thing happen here in the city.
As far as the NGOs’ ability to get out and about and do their jobs, that situation has been alleviated somewhat. The government put a ban on the ability of NGOs to distribute food back in June. We’ve worked with the government and that ban was finally lifted about two weeks ago. What this means is that we’re very, very far behind in our annual food distribution cycle. So we are working desperately now, as hard as we can, to try to catch up.
We’ve had some other issues in that regard where the government did not allow NGOs to use foreign exchange, foreign currency, to fund their operations. We finally got a break on that about a week ago where the government now has sent out a letter saying that NGOs can use foreign currency to fund their operations. And this means that we are going to be able to get better coverage out in the countryside. We’ll be able to rent the trucks that we need to deliver the food. We’ll be able to pay the salaries to the additional people that we need to deliver the food.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) We’ve all seen reports a few months ago on education that not only the teachers hadn’t been paid, but that the teachers unions had called for a repeat of the entire school year. And I’m wondering if you can give us an update on the situation.
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: That’s absolutely true. I think some of the most telling figures that I’ve seen recently is back during the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Government of Zimbabwe spent 25 percent of its budget on education. Today, that figure is 18 cents per student per year. So many schools have closed. I was just – I was coming into work this morning, and my driver informed me that the public school where his children go to school had just asked for a $700 U.S. top-up additional fee for their expenses for the remainder of this school year. That’s just well beyond the ability of normal Zimbabweans to pay.
So the school system has totally fallen apart, not only at the primary education level, at secondary and also at the university level. University students are not in class. There’s no hope that they’re going to get back to class anytime soon. So this situation has totally fallen apart in a country that at one time had a higher literacy rate than the United States of America.
QUESTION: Lachlan Carmichael again. What about abuses against the opposition? Do you see more of the abuses that you mentioned earlier this year, opposition being beaten, and worse?
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: The overall levels of violence have decreased. We’re still hearing quite a few stories about how people are being mistreated, abused, and in many cases, abducted around the countryside.
From October 27th until November 1st, Zimbabwean security authorities seized 12 individuals, including a mother and a two-year-old child, affiliated with the Movement for Democratic Change, the opposition party. This includes local and national officials who are complicit on these actions. The adults are reportedly being interrogated for alleged involvement in paramilitary camps in Botswana, a charge that the Botswana Government has roundly denied.
On October – on November the 12th, the high court issued a court order to the home affairs minister to – and the police commissioner to produce the evidence against these folks, or immediately produce the 12 individuals whose whereabouts are still unknown to their lawyers. So, yeah, we still have issues here in Zimbabwe. They’re not as pronounced as they were during the run-up to the run-off election in June, but still very serious, serious issues.
QUESTION: Ambassador, Viola Gienger from Bloomberg News. Can you tell us anything about what kind of actions you’re urging or discussing with the neighboring countries, with SADC and so forth? What can they realistically do next to address the situation? What do you think they should be doing next specifically?
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: Well, we think that SADC has done quite a bit to begin with. The negotiations that led to the signing of the September 15th agreement were very good. Frankly, they were very good. They were a watershed moment for SADC. The agreement itself still leaves a lot to be desired, but it is a beginning. It is a base. We feel now that SADC needs to continue to pressure this government, the Mugabe government, to ensure that the will of the people of Zimbabwe is met, number one; and number two, that the agreement for a unity government is established.
I think one of the key issues is that SADC should not recognize Robert Mugabe as the legitimate president of Zimbabwe unless this agreement is implemented. Robert Mugabe, pretty much, swore himself in as the president of Zimbabwe. The people of Zimbabwe did not vote him in as their president. So SADC needs to step forward and continue to do what they are doing, more pressure on the Mugabe regime to respect the will of the people of Zimbabwe, and to put in an honest government into this country.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that? Has SADC, at this point, acknowledged him in any way as the president? What is his status (inaudible)?
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: During the recent SADC summit in Johannesburg, he was seated as president of Zimbabwe, so I think that speaks volumes, right? As a matter of fact, during the deliberations on whether – on how the government should divide up the ministries, he actually was allowed to stay in the room, as the president of Zimbabwe, during those deliberations. That was a key issue during the deliberations that the opposition party leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, took great exception to.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Sue Pleming again from Reuters. You’ve painted such a dismal picture of what’s happening in Zimbabwe with inflation – runaway inflation, cholera epidemics, children with distended bellies. I mean it’s – what do you think could turn this around, apart from – I mean, how long do you think it’s going to take before the country can get back on its feet, before you can have plantings again, before you can sort out the health system?
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: Yeah. As bad as Zimbabwe seems, it started at such a high level as compared to many other African nations that I think the turnaround time could be very rapid here in Zimbabwe. What we do need, however, is a government that’s committed to taking care of its people. Again, this is wealthy country. As recently as six years ago, the World Food Program actually came to Zimbabwe to buy grain, to buy food to help feed other countries at risk here in Africa. Six years later, that situation has turned itself around.
With correct inputs, with correct agricultural methods, we could easily turn Zimbabwe back into the breadbasket of Southern and Central Africa. That would be fairly simple to do. Getting back to a market economy, a market-driven economy, getting rid of the corruption that’s endemic now in this country, that’s going to take more time. But again, if there is goodwill on the part of government, we and the international community are willing to step forward and help them as much as possible to achieve the results that they need.
MR. WOOD: Ambassador McGee, thank you very much, sir, for being with us today. We greatly appreciate it.
AMBASSADOR MCGEE: Thank you.
Released on November 20, 2008