Embattled Zimbabwe Leader Looks to China for Help

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Under growing pressure from the international community over rights abuses and political and financial mismanagement, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has turned to China for help.

The 81-year-old leader, who has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980, is on a state visit and plans to discuss aid and trade with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other senior figures.

Under what he calls a "Look East" policy - an explicit response to Western criticism -- Mugabe has sought stronger ties with Beijing, buying aircraft and other goods from China, which in turn is keen to strengthen political and trade ties with Africa.

South African sources believe Mugabe may offer the Chinese mining concessions in return for additional help.

Mugabe's visit comes as the International Monetary Fund prepares to decide on whether to expel Zimbabwe, whose arrears to the IMF amount to more than $300 million. A six-month waiver on suspension of Zimbabwe's membership is due to expire in August.

Mugabe is also under pressure from the United Nations. A U.N. envoy who visited the country reported late last week on a controversial operation against unauthorized homes and businesses in Harare, estimating that up to 700,000 people had lost their homes, livelihood or both.

A hard-hitting report by the envoy, Anna Tibaijuka, called for an immediate halt to the operation, compensation for those whose property was destroyed, humanitarian and reconstruction programs, and -- of particular note -- for "all those who orchestrated this catastrophe" to be prosecuted.

The report may be presented to the U.N. Security Council.

African governments have been under fire from the West for years for defending Mugabe's policies, but the criticism from the U.N. may turn out to be more effective. Tibaijuka is an African, as is Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who sent her to Zimbabwe and may himself visit soon.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, approached by Mugabe for financial aid, said on Sunday his government was considering taking over part of Zimbabwe's debt to the IMF.

But it would reportedly link the help to significant economic and political reforms - a shift away from Pretoria's much-criticized policy of "constructive" dialogue with Zimbabwe.

"South Africa has a real stake in the restoration of political and economic normalcy in Zimbabwe," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on Monday. "And a South Africa loan could be a positive development if it results in concrete political and economic reform in Zimbabwe."

McCormack also praised Tibaijuka's report, calling it "important" and "a serious effort" and said the U.S. endorsed the key recommendations.

Zimbabwe criticized the report, which foreign minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi said used "judgmental language" and demonstrated "in-built bias against the government."

Once a thriving food producer, Zimbabwe, a country of 12 million people, has one of the highest inflation rates in the world -- over 160 percent. Unemployment stands at around 70 percent.

Mugabe has blamed the country's woes on the West, especially former colonial power Britain and the U.S.

See earlier story:
West Steps Up Pressure on African Gov'ts Over Zimbabwe Abuses (Jun. 24, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow