Matthew Norman: The warmest welcome for a tyrant-in-exile

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The Independent Online

If anyone had suggested a week ago that there could ever be any vague reason to support Mr Tony Blair's campaign to become President of the European Union, you'd have backed nervously out of the room and alerted the authorities that a dangerously disturbed person and a straitjacket were in urgent need of reunion. A week in politics being what it is, today such a reason presents itself, and far from being vague it is precise and compelling. For only with Mr Blair duly installed as our continent's leader is there a chance of the ban on Robert Mugabe entering the EU being lifted.

Mr Mugabe, being unimaginably rich, is a pretty Blair kinda guy. Admittedly the two had their differences, but as a firm believer in what another fallen dictator knew as Year Zero, Mr Blair has no time for the past. Anyway, on Mr Blair's side at least, the differences seemed primarily cosmetic. Sanctions, schmanctions ... the fact that this fervent advocate of military interventionism to protect the persecuted from their tyrants never sent troops to Zimbabwe while Mr Mugabe was committing Maoist mass murder by starving his people says enough. In permitting him to remain in power, Mr Blair committed what he and fellow Roman Catholic Mr Mugabe (he was schooled, would you believe it, by Jesuits; spare the rod indeed) know as a sin of omission.

Like Saddam, Mr Mugabe was originally our boy in the region; and just like Saddam, he was tacitly encouraged in his monstrosity by Britain. Some may speculate on how history might have unfolded had a few oil fields miraculously appeared on the outskirts of Bulawayo, to whet the lips of Messrs Cheney and Bush. But this column will no more deal with hypotheticals than indulge those our former PM called the cynics and sneerers.

Saddam's encouragement came in part from the £600m in extra trade guarantees given to Baghdad by John Major's administration shortly after a Commons' Early Day Motion (one Mr Blair contrived not to sign) railed against the gassing of the Kurds at Halabja, later cited as a central reason to remove him. Mr Mugabe's was arguably more bizarre still. Although her government well knew that his North Korean-trained 5th Brigade slaughtered some 20,000 members of the Ndebele community in Matebeleland between 1982 and 1985, Her Majesty recognised his chivalry by appointing Mr Mugabe a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1994.

Whether this lavish gong bamboozled him into assuming that the erstwhile colonial power wasn't frantically concerned about his brutality, and emboldened him to commit further atrocities, we can only guess. But not for nothing was the phrase "perfide Albion" so popular in 19th-century France, and little has changed. So as we scour the globe for his new home, the answer seems obvious. He should come to the source of his knighthood.

If and when President Blair gets that EU travel ban lifted, Mr Mugabe could, of course, go to France, which for all its distaste for British hypocrisy has some form in this area, having another of Africa's top-ranked horrors, the Emperor Bokassa, after he fled the Central African Republic, leaving the gory human contents of his deep freeze to thaw and rot. But Zimbabwe is not a Francophone country, and 84 is pushing it to learn a new language.

There are other contenders should Mr Mugabe wish to emigrate. South Africa, where Thabo Mbeki has been such a loyal friend, has a history of hosting dictators from neighbouring countries, Hastings Banda dying in a Johannesburg hospital after leaving Malawi. Another favourite must be Malaysia, where the currently invisible Mr Mugabe is rumoured to be now.

No one but he knows how many billions he stashed away during his 28 years in power, but even a fiscal dunce like me wouldn't have stuck them on deposit at the central bank of a country with Zimbabwe's inflation rate of 100,000 per cent, and the dosh is believed to be in Kuala Lumpur. Saudi Arabia, which merrily gave Idi Amin sanctuary, is another worth a glance. Mr Mugabe would relish the no-nonsense approach to homosexuality and political dissent. Then again, there aren't too many Catholic churches in Riyadh.

All of which brings us back to the land with which Saudi Arabia shares so many values, as our fearless Foreign Office recently reminded us, but has a more laissez-faire approach to religious observance. One school of thought will go for Wentworth, Surrey, where General Pinochet spent so many happy months. Yet that precedent carries displeasing memories of house arrest. Anyway, however enchanting the mental picture of Mr Mugabe sharing a foursome with Brucie, Little Ron and Kenny Lynch, and maybe playing in Peter Alliss's annual pro-am event, I can find no reference anywhere to Mr Mugabe liking golf.

No, it simply has to be London. Along with the secure peace in Northern Ireland, it was transforming the city into the planet's preferred playground for foreign plutocrats, regardless of how they came by their wealth, that was Mr Blair's monumental achievement. The arrival of Mr Mugabe would crown the metamorphosis. He'd make the perfect playmate for Thaksin Shinawatra, whom Amnesty International insists commissioned a fair amount of slaughtering himself. He could even emulate the erstwhile Thai leader by buying himself a football club. As an impeccably liberal, "Blue Moon"-singing friend put it when he snaffled the club, "I couldn't give a damn about his human rights so long as he brings us mid-table respectability", and this is the morality of the Premier League.

So if Mr Mugabe wants to delve into the piggy bank, after the fashion of Thaksin and Roman Abramovich, who will object? If Mr Mugabe could move quickly, he might beat the Dubai Investment Corporation to buy turmoil-ridden Liverpool. If he doesn't fancy all the helicopter trips to Anfield, Spurs owner Joe Lewis has just blown some £500m on Bear Sterns shares, and might be open to an offer.

We need the likes of Robert Mugabe in English football, and we need him in a £25m Belgravia house a few minutes drive from the sovereign who rewarded his splendid stewardship of Zimbabwe on her government's advice. And purveyors of the choicest luxury goods need his lovely wife Grace, whose legendary shopping trips made Cherie's appetite for designer goods seem anorexic. Grace might even pay for her stuff.

With the housing and retail sectors worsening by the day, we must extend the hand of friendship that welcomed the Shinawatras. Britain and Robert Mugabe ... it's been a marriage made in that elusive Dantean tenth circle of hell before, and deserves to be again. All that remains is persuading those pesky Europeans that Mr Tony Blair belongs to Brussels in exactly the way Robert Mugabe KMG belongs to dear old London town.

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