How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

 

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete tomorrow
News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
peopleBroadcaster has a new role bringing 'the big stories that matter' to US
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
Life and Style
Moves to regulate e-cigarettes and similar products as medicines come amid increasing evidence of their effectiveness
healthHuge anti-smoking campaign kicks off on Wednesday
Life and Style
fashionEveryone, apparently
Voices
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs
voicesJustine Elyot: Since Fifty Shades there's no need to be secretive about it — everyone's at it
Arts and Entertainment
A new Banksy entitled 'Art Buff' has appeared in Folkestone, Kent
art
Arts and Entertainment
Shia LaBeouf is one of Brad Pitt's favourite actors in the world ever, apparently
filmsAn 'eccentric' choice, certainly
Life and Style
An Internet security expert has warned that voice recognition technology needs to be more secure
techExperts warn hackers could control our homes or spend our money simply by speaking
Extras
indybest
News
peopleBenjamin Netanyahu trolled by group promoting two-state solution
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

1st Line Service Desk Analyst

£27000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client who are...

Supply teachers required for secondary schools in Peterborough

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary supply teac...

English Teacher - January

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: English Teacher A Hull school i...

Humanities Teacher - January

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Humanities, Religious Education ...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style