In the last days of President Robert Mugabe the political scene painted British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a pantomime villain. The late President Mugabe railed against Blair at political rallies, in the early years of this century, calling him “B-Liar” and saying famously at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002: “You can keep your England, I shall keep my Zimbabwe.” Blair is unfazed by the years of criticism, in his decade in power at Westminster, and says he is happy to speak to Mugabe’s successor President Emerson Mnangagwa.
More than a decade on Blair – who now runs an institute promoting good governance in Africa – was asked how acrimonious his not very special relationship with Zimbabwe was, in an exclusive interview with CNBC Africa from London.
“I think acrimonious was probably and understatement!” smiled Blair more than a decade on.
“I am happy to speak to Mnangagwa, but these things are best done in a private way. I was actually thinking about Zimbabwe the other day. I think, at certain points, there were misunderstandings, not genuine disagreements. If Zimbabwe were to get its act together it would be an exciting place to be.”
Blair went further to call for reform in Zimbabwe and was effusive in his praise of the country were the politicians once scorned him.
“Zimbabwe I hope the new leadership there will take the necessary measure and reforms because Zimbabwe is a very wealthy country and I meet Zimbabweans around the world and they are a very talented people. I want the government to succeed; it really is what has to be done. I do think it is what needs to happened there not just opening up political space, but also economic reforms to take the country to a boom. If the government there showed real commitment or reform, it would help in the future because we need Zimbabwe back as a player in the continent,” says Blair.
The former British Prime Minister’s encouraging words contrast the bitterness that the late President Mugabe felt for Blair in return. The ruling ZANU pf party called its 2005 election campaign the “Anti-Blair Vote.”
At the launch of that election campaign, in December 2004, Mugabe set the tone with the words: “Regime change, Mr Blair? Who are you? Who are you to talk of regime change in Zimbabwe? One of us, by what connection sir, do you hear me? Ancestral connection? And who were these ancestors, can we know? No, Zimbabwe is for Zimbabweans. And only Zimbabweans can determine who shall rule them and who shall not. Whether there is a situation here of political order, of lawlessness, violation of the rule of law, violation of human rights, lack of democracy, our neighbours would know that better than the British government… It is our land, ancestral land, our sacred land, never an extension of Britain.”