Late last week, Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai did something Zimbabwean leadership has not been able to do in more than a decade: Meet with the American president in the Oval Office. For Tsvangirai, the meeting with President Obama capped off a week of making the rounds with members of Congress, Secretary of State Clinton, and senior policy officials. Here’s a clip from the press conference:
Tsvangirai’s Washington visit was the first leg of a three week trip to western capitals meant to drum up donor support – in the form of $10 billion in direct aid – for Zimbabwe’s beleaguered unity government that the prime minister and other Zimbabwean officials believe is crucial to their country’s movement forward.
Sentiments expressed during Tsvangirai’s visit demonstrate America’s desire to support Zimbabwe, a country that is currently the most food aid dependent in the world, with more orphans per capita than anywhere else. However, President Obama’s statements as well as reactions from influential officials on Capitol Hill and at the State Department highlighted the firm red line that prohibits the United States from sending anything other than non-humanitarian aid until there is proof that President Mugabe and ZANU-PF hardliners are in full compliance with the Global Political Agreement signed last fall.
Below are a few key reactions:
Senator Feingold, one of the most influential voices on Africa in Congress, argued in support of Zimbabweans but against lifting sanctions in the current climate. The senator noted that, in a meeting with Prime Minister Tsvangirai, he,
reaffirmed our country’s commitment to providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Zimbabwe and new resources for critical services like education, health, water and sanitation. However, I was clear with Prime Minister Tsvangirai that the United States will continue to maintain our targeted sanctions and restrictions on direct assistance to the government until we see real progress toward restoration of the rule of law, civilian control over a disciplined security force and respect for human rights.
In an interview with Reuters, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, America’s chief diplomat in Africa and the former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, echoed Feingold’s distinction, noting that the United States would continue to provide humanitarian assistance but that “for any major aid to kick in there had to be an end to the harassment of officials from Tsvangirai’s party, civil society groups as well as opposition politicians ‘of all stripes.’”
Similarly, the White House readout from the meeting emphasized the good will between the president and Prime Minister Tsvangirai. President Obama spoke highly of the prime minister, emphasized the progress being made, and promised $73 million dollars in assistance to the country. However, he ignored Tsvangirai’s pleas for aid to the unity government, noting that the funds he announced would bypass the government because "we continue to be concerned about consolidating democracy, human rights and rule of law."
While it is impossible to know what exactly is going on behind closed doors, it seems that Tsvangirai’s visit to the United States did not bring about the policy shift the prime minister continues to ardently pursue. The reaction in Washington to Tsvangirai’s visit demonstrates that the United States is not going to be swayed just by the prime minister’s compelling words. A Zimbabwean government truly moving towards democracy must abide by its previously signed agreements and rid itself of those intensely corrupt officials who drove the country into the ground during decades of misrule.