If there is one thing Robert Mugabe dislikes as much as “ruffian” British politicians, it is journalists working for the British media – especially the BBC.
Accusing the corporation of one-sided reporting and of being a mouthpiece for the UK government, the controversial Zimbabwean President had refused to grant an interview to any journalist from the broadcaster for14 years. Mugabe’s government says it “restricted” the BBC from reporting inside the country. The BBC, arguing that its robust journalism merely covered factual events that the Harare government wanted hidden, says it was “banned”.
The standoff ended when my colleague Simon Breen and I approached the BBC to make a programme on Mugabe to coincide with his 90th birthday. It agreed.
In an act of shuttle diplomacy that made me feel like a UN diplomat, I had to convince President Mugabe to come to the table. Persuading him to sit down to talk for a previous, independent documentary had taken me two years; this time I had to do it in 10 days.
The first hurdle was the BBC insisting on its own correspondent for the interview. The team knew scrutiny of the programme would be extremely high, so using an unknown face would be tricky. David Dimbleby was the last BBC reporter to interview Mugabe, in 2000. To suggest he should sit with another “BBC face”? I knew he wouldn’t go for that.
Just as Mugabe was nervous about the BBC, the broadcaster was nervous about me – and not without merit. I have spoken at Oxford and Harvard criticising Western reporting on Zimbabwe. I have also gone on record praising Mugabe. Contrary to Western opinion, many in Africa regard him as a hero. He still remains popular with a large part of the Zimbabwean population. But I also criticise him. Making that clear to the BBC, eventually it nervously agreed.
I flew to Harare in mid-February, playing on the trust I had built up with Mugabe over 10 years. He decided to do it.
However, the 10-day schedule the BBC had set was unrealistic. Ten days passed, no interview. Twenty-one days passed, and still no interview.
Another week went by. I was booked to fly back to London without the interview. The day before I was due to fly back, I attended a birthday event hosted by the civil service. I disregarded protocol and “doorstepped” Mugabe. He told me not to panic, and promised he would do the interview. “Don’t worry, I will give you time.” A few days later, I got the call from State House.
The interview was scheduled to last one hour. It went on for three hours and 54 minutes. Here’s some of what he had to say. He didn’t hold back.
Mugabe on the UK
“What has happened to Britain? They have grown small in mind. That wisdom which the likes of Churchill had, where is it? You can’t see it in people now with gay habits – shame on them. I pity the one lady I admire, the Queen, that she is in these circumstances, I’m sure down deep she must be groaning [at] the loss of values in Britain. They’ve gone to the dogs. Countries don’t respect Britain any more. Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the world. Which world? [David] Cameron ... doesn’t talk much, but he acts in the same way as [George W] Bush.”
On Labour’s relationship with him after 1997
“When you had these ruffians coming, coming into power from Labour ... Mr Blair [was] wanting to reverse the entire process and not willing to say anything about the land-reform programme in terms of the compensatory aspect of it. Finally [he was] telling us that Britain has no obligation to former colonies. What is there in the mind of Blair? A tail of Mr Bush. Liars on Zimbabwe, a liar on Iraq.”
On President Barack Obama
“I see him as a person who has been trying as much as possible to please the white section of America and to avoid any relationship that might be construed as being racist. If you can’t deviate then you can’t serve the interests of the blacks who are suffering, who are yearning for justice in America.”
On being viewed by the West as the one of the worst villains of modern history
“It doesn’t bother me at all. The West is not objective, far from it. We have seen how the West comes to its judgements. There appears to be a kind of overall dementia affecting the minds of the West.”
‘Our World, Mugabe at 90’ will be broadcast on the BBC News Channel at 9.30pm on Saturday, and across the Easter weekend