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"Sniffer dogs and armed guards"
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FCO minister Peter Hain
"We have no explanation from the Zimbabwean Government"
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Friday, 10 March, 2000, 12:27 GMT
Why Zimbabwe distrusts the UK
FCO's Peter Hain
Peter Hain: A vocal critic of President Mugabe
By Joseph Winter in Harare

The Union Jack is still flying over the British High Commission in Harare but the High Commissioner is back in London, where future ties with Zimbabwe are being discussed.

Such a blazing row has been on the cards for some time.

Relations started going downhill in 1997 when President Robert Mugabe announced a radical programme of land reform and declared that Britain should pay compensation to "its kith and kin" - i.e. the white farmers, whose land he wanted to seize and give to poor black families.

He said that Zimbabwe's unequal pattern of land ownership was a result of colonial policies and so Britain should pay to put it right.

UK diplomatic bags
The authorities thought opposition election materials may have been in the baggage
Britain categorically refused and said that previous land redistribution had benefited top officials from government and the ruling party - rather than the landless poor.

President Mugabe claimed this knock-back was because Britain did not want its citizens to lose their land.

Recently, it was even alleged in Harare that Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain owns land in Zimbabwe - a claim which he has flatly denied.

'Evil British hand'

Zimbabwe now detects an evil British hand behind every ill which befalls the country.

Seen from Harare, Britain ordered the IMF to cut off aid last year, although the IMF said it was concerned over who was funding the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

President Mugabe: Blamed by many for economic hardships
President Mugabe: Blamed by many for economic hardships
Then, at the start of the fuel shortage, Mr Mugabe accused British banks of hoarding hard currency, to prevent Zimbabwe from paying its foreign oil bills.

He has since admitted that corruption by Zimbabwean officials was the real cause.

To add to Mr Mugabe's anger over the land question, gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell attempted to carry out a citizen's arrest on him, while on a trip to London last year.

The president was outraged and accused what he called Prime Minister Tony Blair's "gay gangster regime" of organising the ambush.

Peter Longworth, the now-recalled British High Commissioner, was summoned for an ear-bashing by Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Stan Mudenge.

This is the background to the opening of the diplomatic bags and what Peter Hain means when he speaks of the "paranoia with which it [Zimbabwe] views the international community".

Of course, much of this is scape-goating.

Political moves

With parliamentary elections around the corner, it makes political sense to blame Zimbabwe's many problems on a foreign power out to do the country down.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai
Morgan Tsvangirai: The first credible opposition leader
The alternative is to say that the government is responsible and that would be electoral suicide.

The ruling Zanu-PF party accuses Britain of funding the political opposition in a bid to remove it from power.

So when an abnormally large load of almost seven tonnes of diplomatic baggage arrived at Harare airport, they suspected that it could be campaign material.

If they could prove this, it would be a major political coup.

The opposition would be shown to be British stooges and, they hoped, voters would return to the Zanu-PF fold just in time for the elections.

Zimbabwe says that Britain refused to describe the contents, arousing further suspicions.

Britain retorts that "everything was done by the book", although the whole point about diplomatic baggage is that the contents should be secret.

Given Mr Hain's statement that "this was not the action of a civilised country" and that "Zimbabwe has descended into economic chaos and increased social instability and political isolation", relations are unlikely to recover soon.

This will not be good news for Zimbabwe's 80,000 whites, who are seen as "Britain's children".

Already, veterans of the 1970s war of independence are occupying over 400 white-owned farms.

Although they are used to being insulted, as the elections draw near and tensions heighten, they will be hoping that the attacks remain at the verbal level.

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