National Question: WikiLeaks shed light on murky world of diplomacy


If it was not a demonstration of the quality of some of our political leaders, the WikiLeaks saga would make for a good script for a theatrical satire or comedy.

When political party leaders or government ministers were meeting with American diplomats and giving their mostly unmitigated opinions on our country’s politics, they must have taken themselves and their American counterparts very seriously.

In fact, probably more seriously than they would take their own party meetings, parliamentary hearings or even Cabinet sessions.

Judging by the content of some of the cables, those that were meeting with the American diplomats were under the obvious illusion of secrecy, as much as they completely trusted their hosts to keep whatever was said top secret.

Never in their minds did it occur to them that these discussions would see the light of day. And for that, we have WikiLeaks to thank or chastise depending on your viewpoint.

I am firmly persuaded that WikiLeaks played the role of a whistleblower in Zimbabwe’s instance and therefore has allowed us to know what we would have never known.

Some of the things that have come to light are fairly funny, as in the example of MDC-T ministers and leaders accusing their party president of being “as good as the last person he meets”.

Or alternatively Zanu PF ministers talking about how they would like the “young leaders” to take over their party when they have never once raised it in public or even in their own meetings.

There are also much more serious suggestions in the cables relating to the President’s health or the Prime Minister’s capacity to grasp issues and these should obviously be of concern to all Zimbabweans.

How the two leaders react to these cables is something that we will all just have to wait and see, if at all they decide to react to the leaked cables.

One thing is, however, certain: these leaked diplomatic communiqués have thrown light on the murky world of diplomacy and the character of some of our political and other leaders. And this is a good thing with key lessons that can be learnt from it.

First amongst the lessons to be learnt (it might seem basic but it has to be said) is that of political leadership residing primarily with the people you lead rather than diplomats.

The assumptions of secrecy and conspiratorial discussions is indicative of a serious misunderstanding of international relations on the part of the Zimbabwean leaders.

Pouring your heart out at an embassy or with embassy officials is not politics, it’s merely a demonstration of subservience.

Whether they expected the American government to solve our problems we might never know, but the fact that they indeed went out of their way to brief them betrays a simplistic understanding of state politics and power.

Proximity to the American government is not necessarily proximity to the people of Zimbabwe.

All the briefings that Zanu PF and MDC-T politicians gave the diplomats, in their lucidity, have never been given to the people of Zimbabwe.

Instead we have had media blackouts on what is transpiring in the inclusive government or in the parties that comprise it.

When we are lucky we get half-baked briefings in the run-up to some Sadc summit while diplomats are spoilt for choice regularly.

It would therefore be expected that from now on, our political leaders will begin to explain themselves more to us, the citizens of Zimbabwe as much if not more than they generally prostrated themselves before diplomats.

The second lesson to be drawn from the WikiLeaks debacle is that of the necessity of negotiating on principle and with a firm grasp of politics.

In the leaked cables, rarely do any of the leaders demonstrate a clear political principle.

Most of the cables are about personalities, particularly their health, capacities and interactions.

Rarely does one come across a cable where a leader is negotiating with a diplomat on the basis of a political principle or idea. It’s either the leaders are asking for money or attacking a personality.

The alternative would have been meeting these diplomats on issues related to principle, with a clear understanding of collective party or government positions and negotiating on that premise.

Even where the diplomats have better ideas, one should always seek to contextualise the idea and then compare the pros and cons of a proposed plan by a diplomat whose government is willing to assist our government.

The third lesson is that whatever we may say to diplomats of various countries and however we may want to say it, they will always interpret it in their respective country’s interests and in tandem with their country’s foreign policy position.

This is regardless of whether we are having tea or coffee with them or whether we are personal friends with them.

The ultimate judgment on how we brief them and of what they will have been briefed about remains theirs and that of their respective governments.

Zanu PF officials who were meeting with diplomats may have missed this point, particularly in view of the fact that their party has regularly been extremely hostile to the United States.

MDC-T officials may have, however, been over-confident in their “friendship” with the diplomats, and so too may have misunderstood the point of their diplomatic briefings.

A final lesson from the WikiLeaks debacle is that Zimbabwe is our country and where we have leadership positions in government, civil society or business, we must consistently be conscious of this.

We are primarily responsible for it and no matter how many meetings we have with diplomats, Sadc, AU, the EU, the Chinese, the Americans and others, the buck stops with us as to what happens here.

Indeed we can have these “friends”, but they should always be viewed as colleagues who are representing their respective government’s interests, not necessarily ours.

Where the two converge, we must consistently understand, as Amilcar Cabral stated more than 40 years ago, whoever our friends are, we cannot “import their revolutions”.