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Shannon Smith, who was recently appointed the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of African Affairs, gave the keynote speech (and engaged in a Q&A) at the ‘Beyond the Elections in Zimbabwe‘ conference held at NED yesterday.  I can’t find out much about her via Google (too common of a name, but I’d be very curious to learn more about her).

She said very little of interest, which is in itself noteworthy.  Bland statements on the ‘democratic process’ and ‘respect for human rights’ dominated her speech; she was also able to slip in a definition of what an election is.  Perhaps the most interesting moment came when she said the US government is ‘ready to move our relationship with Zimbabwe forward’, inadvertently starting to blurt out ZANU-PF in place of Zimbabwe, before catching herself and inserting the country name in place of the political party that has shaped Zimbabwe’s development over the last 33 years.

The US government has moved much closer to ZANU-PF in recent months, and it is almost inconceivable that ZANU-PF’s actions, such as the snap elections at the end of the month have not meant with stronger opposition from the US.  All I can deduce from this is that the olive branch extended to Mugabe by the Obama Administration is part of the increased focus on supporting US private sector investment in Africa (which would be seriously misplaced in this case given the black economic empowerment rhetoric espoused by ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe – it may be necessary in South Africa, but not in Zimbabwe anytime after 2001).

US investment in Zimbabwe did come up during the conversation, with one businessman asking a question and saying he’d love to see an environment emerge as a result of the election that would allow him to invest.  Smith added that the Administration will ‘work with any government chosen…[via] credible elections’ and that it is likely sanctions will be rolled back following those elections.

To be fair, Smith did articulate some concerns that the administrations has with the election process, such as the security sector, the voter’s roll, and equal access to media.  However, this conference came just eight days before the election.  There is no way that a free election can be held in Zimbabwe, even if the voting proceeds peacefully.  Opposition parties have been pushed about, bloodied, and denied their basic rights throughout Zimbabwe’s history.  Nothing in the next eight days can make the elections credible.

If I was someone in Zimbabwe who lost a relative to political violence, such as the newly elected MDC mayor in 2008, or was abducted and beaten by the State, such as Jestina Mukoko, or a white farmer whose land was threatened and won a case at the SADC tribunal to have it protected only to not see its verdict respected, I’d find Smith’s comments to go beyond troubling.  If I was a Zimbabwean and heard someone saying they are prepared to work with a government that presided over an unprecedented economic collapse, which murders its own citizens, destroys their housing, and loots their mineral wealth, I might even describe them using the words that Robert Mugabe ascribed to Jacob Zuma’s International Relations adviser.

I am not Zimbabwean, but I did visit the country on a yearly basis for seven years in a row.  I saw the environment that lead police to arrest elderly women selling mangoes.  I inadvertently stepped on a man’s shoes, who then launched into a tirade about Bush, Blair, and the need for me to pay him for the damage to his shoes.  I saw people whose savings were wiped out by a runaway inflation and had to travel to South Africa to buy essentials like oil and rice.  Mugabe and ZANU – PF have thrown a ruinous atmosphere over a beautiful country.  The US government should not be speaking about ‘normalizing relationships’ with criminals, thugs, and tyrants.

Jenni Williams spoke up to Smith’s speech and announced that ‘our lives are being sanctioned’ by ZANU-PF.  I hope that means something to our State Department.