President Mugabe is iconic: UK envoy
Lloyd Gumbo Senior Reporter
Newly-accredited British ambassador to Zimbabwe Ms Catriona Laing has described President Mugabe as an iconic world figure whom she was excited to meet in person once she landed in the country.
Ms Laing presented her credentials to President Mugabe at State Houser early this month before they held a closed-door meeting.
She succeeded Ms Deborah Bronnert.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview yesterday, Ms Laing said during the meeting at State House, she felt that President Mugabe was committed to normalising relations between Harare and London.
“Obviously, he is a very iconic figure,” she said. “He is one of the few presidents in an African country whose name will be known in our country and in most countries maybe because he has been in power for a long time,” said Ms Laing.
“Everyone has heard about him; I have read about him, so it was very interesting to meet him in person. I think we had a very constructive meeting. I found him willing to listen, to engage. And he gave me a signal as I requested that where we have differences we can have a mature dialogue,” Ambassador Laing said.
“The objective of the meeting was to ensure that we can come out with a feeling that this was the start of a dialogue rather than just a once-off and I was assured of that. He gave me that commitment.
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“He was extremely alert and very attentive and interested in the dialogue.
“He is absolutely 100 percent engaged.”
Ms Laing has joined a number of foreign diplomats who have been charmed by President Mugabe, in a move that exposes hypocrisy of their countries which want to portray the President as a nonentity.
Former US ambassador to Zimbabwe Mr Charles Ray once said of President Mugabe: “The man (President Mugabe) has an encyclopaedia for a brain, any discussion with him is fruitful.”
Ms Laing said despite the acrimonious relations between Zimbabwe and the UK, it was time they built bridges for their common good so that they go back to the good old days.
“I think that’s a positive thing in terms of returning to a more constructive UK-Zimbabwe relationship and recognising that shared history, that shared culture, shared education system and remembering that as we tackle some of the more difficult issues going forward. I felt confident after my meeting with the President, that provides for us a good foundation for partnership going forward,” she said.
Ms Laing said her mandate was to improve relations between the two countries, adding that they would have to work with Zanu-PF as the ruling party.
She said it was important for the two countries to look back on a solid foundation in terms of their long history and cultural ties.
To improve relations between the two countries, Ms Laing said, they must have mature engagement in an honest and transparent manner whenever they have differences.
“I see my mandate is to start enabling both sides to take steps towards normalising relationship,” she said.
“That is certainly what we want from the UK side. And from my meeting so far my understanding is what the Government of Zimbabwe also wants. It’s in both our interests to have a normal relationship.
“But the basis for that relationship has to be such principles that we are strongly committed to adhere to around governance, democracy and human rights. We are not shying away from that and there are still some hurdles along the way.”
Relations between Zimbabwe and Britain soured after the launch of the land reform programme which took away land from white former farmers and distributed it to former marginalised indigenous blacks.
Britain internationalised the dispute and roped in its allies to vilify President Mugabe and Zimbabwe in a bid to reverse the land reform.
The Western countries subsequently imposed illegal sanctions on the country, but Zimbabwe persevered and the fruits of land reform are now being celebrated with bumper harvests and empowerment of the majority.