Zimbabwe's premier, Morgan Tsvangirai, was booed yesterday as he said to his countrymen living in Britain: "Let me tell you that Zimbabweans must come home." Mr Tsvangirai was at Southwark Cathedral in London during his first official visit to the UK.
The response to his rallying cry was not what he would have hoped for. Instead of a wave of patriotic fervour, his words unleashed jeers from thousands of exiled Zimbabweans.
The Movement for Democratic Change president appealed for the best and brightest to return to help rebuild his nation. The plea was shouted down with chants of "Mugabe must go" and calls for politicians' children to return first.
The MDC party slogan "chinja" (change), which Mr Tsvangirai used to get to power, was employed yesterday to mock his assessment of the situation in Zimbabwe, which, he said, was one of "peace and stability".
The ferocity of the crowd was such that he left the pulpit for two minutes before returning and saying: "I did not say 'pack your bags tomorrow', I said you should be thinking about coming home."
Mr Tsvangirai, who is on the last stage of a tour of Europe and the US to woo financial support, said the country had achieved a lot since the MDC entered a unity government with President Mugabe four months ago.
The service began optimistically with an emotional rendition of the national anthem and prayers for the country. The cathedral was taken over with the sound of ululations as the crowd were clearly excited by his presence, if not his message.
The mood changed quickly when Mr Tsvangirai described how he believed the country had recovered. He cited the re-opening of schools and economic improvements since the country adopted the US dollar.
But the crowd was well aware of continued doubts over the country's human rights records which have been raised this week by both Amnesty International and Women of Zimbabwe Arise.
Beatrice Mujana, a 41-year-old teacher from Harare, now living in London, was one of the Zimbabweans waiting for the PM outside the cathedral with placards deploring the country's human rights abuses. "It's irresponsible for Mr Tsvangirai to ask people to go home now," said Ms Mujana, who has two children. "There is still so much trouble; it is simply not a fair thing to ask."
Mr Tsvangirai flew into London on Friday evening when he is understood to have met dignitaries including Prince Charles. He had been in Brussels holding Zimbabwe's first official talks with the EU in seven years.
He is expected to stay in the UK until Wednesday, meeting Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, and Alistair Darling as he seeks humanitarian aid and financial support.
President Barack Obama had already pledged a further $73m in aid, but Britain and the EU have maintained that they want to see movement in the human rights situation before they consider lifting sanctions.
But Mr Tsvangirai told the IoS he was still hopeful he might change their minds: "Britain has the right to take that decision but we will put our case supporting that this process of a unity government is the best option and hope they will change their mind."
He admitted he was shocked by the crowd's reaction. "When I go out to the Zimbabweans back home this does not happen. People must give us a chance."Reuse content