Does Robert Mugabe really need WikiLeaks?

Cables from the U.S. Embassy in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare account for just 13 of the nearly 2,000 State Department documents that WikiLeaks has posted so far, but President Robert Mugabe’s government has gotten a lot of mileage out of them — in fact, he’s probably made more enterprising use of the slow-rolling scandal ...

DESMOND KWANDE/AFP/Getty Images
DESMOND KWANDE/AFP/Getty Images
DESMOND KWANDE/AFP/Getty Images

Cables from the U.S. Embassy in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare account for just 13 of the nearly 2,000 State Department documents that WikiLeaks has posted so far, but President Robert Mugabe's government has gotten a lot of mileage out of them -- in fact, he's probably made more enterprising use of the slow-rolling scandal than any other world leader. When an independent Zimbabwean newspaper reported on a cable alleging that members of Mugabe's circle -- including his wife, Grace Mugabe -- had profited extensively from the country's black -market diamond trade, the first lady sued the paper for $15 million (a move that has prompted reprisals from hackers). When WikiLeaks published a year-old cable detailing a meeting between Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and U.S. officials, Mugabe -- who had grudgingly acceded to a power-sharing arrangement with his old nemesis -- jumped at the opportunity.

Last week, Johannes Tomana, Zimbabwe's attorney general, announced that he would consider charging Tsvangirai with high treason over the contents of the cable, in which Tsvangirai suggests the possibility of working with U.S. and other foreign officials on the international sanctions regime imposed on Mugabe's government -- penalties that Tsvangirai publicly opposed but privately insisted "be kept in place," according to the cable. High treason carries the death penalty in Zimbabwe, and a number of writers -- Christopher Albon in the Atlantic, James Kirchick in the Wall Street Journal, and James Richardson in today's Guardian, among others -- have pre-emptively placed Tsvangirai's blood on Julian Assange's hands. Richardson's piece is a particularly good summary of the events thus far and builds to a withering conclusion:

Cables from the U.S. Embassy in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare account for just 13 of the nearly 2,000 State Department documents that WikiLeaks has posted so far, but President Robert Mugabe’s government has gotten a lot of mileage out of them — in fact, he’s probably made more enterprising use of the slow-rolling scandal than any other world leader. When an independent Zimbabwean newspaper reported on a cable alleging that members of Mugabe’s circle — including his wife, Grace Mugabe — had profited extensively from the country’s black -market diamond trade, the first lady sued the paper for $15 million (a move that has prompted reprisals from hackers). When WikiLeaks published a year-old cable detailing a meeting between Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and U.S. officials, Mugabe — who had grudgingly acceded to a power-sharing arrangement with his old nemesis — jumped at the opportunity.

Last week, Johannes Tomana, Zimbabwe’s attorney general, announced that he would consider charging Tsvangirai with high treason over the contents of the cable, in which Tsvangirai suggests the possibility of working with U.S. and other foreign officials on the international sanctions regime imposed on Mugabe’s government — penalties that Tsvangirai publicly opposed but privately insisted “be kept in place,” according to the cable. High treason carries the death penalty in Zimbabwe, and a number of writers — Christopher Albon in the Atlantic, James Kirchick in the Wall Street Journal, and James Richardson in today’s Guardian, among others — have pre-emptively placed Tsvangirai’s blood on Julian Assange’s hands. Richardson’s piece is a particularly good summary of the events thus far and builds to a withering conclusion:

And so, where Mugabe’s strong-arming, torture and assassination attempts have failed to eliminate the leading figure of Zimbabwe’s democratic opposition, WikiLeaks may yet succeed. Twenty years of sacrifice and suffering by Tsvangirai all for naught, as WikiLeaks risks “collateral murder” in the name of transparency.

Before more political carnage is wrought and more blood spilled — in Africa and elsewhere, with special concern for those US-sympathising Afghans fingered in its last war document dump — WikiLeaks ought to leave international relations to those who understand it — at least to those who understand the value of a life.

It’s certainly true that Assange has been maddeningly unwilling to examine the implications of his actions — or, alternately, convinced that he can have it both ways, remaking the business of geopolitics while claiming no casualties. But I’m somewhat more persuaded by Albon’s measured take from last week. After noting that a Tsvangirai conviction based on the cable alone is unlikely, he writes:

It’s difficult to see this as anything but a major setback for democracy in Zimbabwe. Even if Tsvangirai is not charged with treason, the opponents to democratic reforms have won a significant victory. First, popular support for Tsvangirai and the MDC will suffer due to Mugabe’s inevitable smear campaign, including the attorney general’s “investigation.” Second, the Prime Minister might be forced to take positions in opposition to the international community to avoid accusation of being a foreign collaborator. Third, Zimbabwe’s fragile coalition government could collapse completely. Whatever happens, democratic reforms in Zimbabwe are far less likely now than before the leak. 

As Robert Rotberg wrote here last week, WikiLeaks may have provided Mugabe with a useful pretext for dispatching Tsvangirai from his government, but it’s an open question whether he needed one. In reward for his decade-plus of political efforts, Tsvangirai has been variously arrested, beaten, tortured, thrown from a 10th-floor window, and involved in a suspicious collision with a truck that claimed his wife’s life. WikiLeaks is useful to Mugabe, but it’s hardly necessary.

Charles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.

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