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Mugabe and Mahathir  more than their initials in common


The recent Sunday Telegraph report that Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has channelled some 10 million pounds into Malaysian bank accounts should come as little surprise to those who had been following his rapid descent into international ignominy.

Although the allegations were vehemently denied by Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, the Telegraph report was hardly the first linking Mugabes fortunes to Malaysia.

Back in January, The Guardian newspaper revealed that the business interests of Mugabes Zanu PF party was run by a southern African family originally from Malaysia. The head of the family is widely believed to be Shamsudin Abu Hassan, a tycoon on good terms with Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Later, a British Broadcasting Corporation analysis alluded that Western money laundering and financial crime experts had been scrutinising accounts holding some US$65 million, said to be Mugabes assets in Malaysia.

But the Malaysian connection in Zimbabwean affairs has certainly not come out of the blue. Asias longest serving ruler and one of Africas longest have been building close relations these past 20 years.

The relationship dates back to the early 1980s when Mugabe became president of Zimbabwe after leading a victorious war against the countrys white minority rulers. Mahathir, who came into power in 1981, played a key role in initiating the newly independent Zimbabwe into the Commonwealth group of nations.

Nationalist pleas

Of late, this relationship has become all the more significant to the African leader as his unpopular methods of policy-making coupled with suspicions of unfair electoral practices, had lost him many friends abroad.

Pointedly, Malaysia was one of only four countries  the rest were Nigeria, Botswana and Bangladesh  to block Britains move to expel Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth for the ruling partys alleged role in sponsoring violence against opposition members.

In the intervening years, Mahathir and Mugabe found much in common. The two conservative leaders often made impassioned pleas to their people to observe more nationalist attitudes.

Both were also outspoken critics of what they regarded as neo-colonial imperialism of Western countries against the developing world.

Mahathir, who had frequently lambasted what he considered Western double standards, is widely known for his rejection of International Monetary Fund advice in face of Malaysias economic troubles during the Asian financial crisis.

Taking a leaf out of his book, Mugabe attempted to achieve much the same in 1999 when he dispatched a group of Zimbabwes top economic and financial planners to seek Mahathirs advice on how to implement reforms without IMF support.

Economic pointers

It appears that the African leader may have picked up more than economic pointers from his Malaysian counterpart judging from curious similarities in his use of law-making powers.

Mugabe first encountered stern international criticism when he embarked on a controversial land reform programme to redistribute vast farmlands mostly owned by Zimbabwes white minority, to landless peasants.

Allegations of corruption soon marred the nationalisation programme as beneficiaries of the most valuable lands were found to be cronies of Mugabe from his Zanu PF party. Other plots were found to be neglected once they had been repossessed, rather than redistributed to the landless poor.

It did not help matters that Mugabes other well-intentioned policies failed to bear fruit. IMF funding for his programme of free market reforms started in 1991 was later suspended because the reforms got off track. The rapidly declining state of social services for the black majority, such as health and education, also resulted in a growth of domestic discontent.

To muzzle internal opposition, Mugabe pushed through a Freedom of Information Bill to restrict press freedom and a Public Order and Security Act to criminalise criticism against him. Police were also given powers to control and disperse public gatherings whenever they deem it reasonable to do so.

All this would seem rather familiar to Malaysians.

Mahathirs New Economic Policy introduced in the 1970s sought as well to redistribute wealth to the Malay Malaysian majority. This was compounded by racial quotas within the civil service, public universities and government-backed investment schemes.

He created a Malay Malaysian middle class, including several billionaires, through government patronage, but his party Umno has often been accused of practising money politics.

Mahathirs grand plan to boost national pride by constructing projects from the biggest dam to the tallest towers also ran into deep hitches when the countrys massive debt situation plunged it into a currency crisis.

10 worst enemies of the press

In face of the strongest opposition throughout his rule, Mahathir stepped up on the use of repressive laws to silent dissent. The Internal Security Act removed his political opponents while the Printing Presses and Publications Act kept the media in check.

In fact, it is by no accident that the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists last year voted both Mahathir and Mugabe into their 10 worst enemies of the press list.

Malaysian police are also given wide-ranging powers to disperse crowds suspected of exploiting sensitive issues against the government.

Most recently, Mugabes public order legislation has emerged in the milder form of Mahathirs Akujanji or loyalty pledge which prohibits civil servants, academicians and students from criticising government policy.

The use of these restrictive laws has enabled Mahathir to survive the reformasi movement in Malaysia and to remain entrenched in his position.

Will this be a sign of things to come for Mugabe ?

Mugabe may have won the battle at the Zimbabwean polls, but it remains to be seen if he has won the war on public opinion. As the European Union, United States and Australia prepare for further sanctions in addition to the travel ban already imposed, Mugabe could well be perched at the threshold of Zimbabwes own reformasi period.

In the meantime, the Mahathir-Mugabe connection will predictably grow stronger. Increasingly isolated, Mugabe may find himself in less welcoming arms than Mahathirs.