Zimbabwe is the latest country to be shocked by disclosures from US diplomatic cables released by the anti-secrecy website Wikileaks, including a memo that quoted Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono as telling a US envoy in 2008 that President Robert Mugabe had cancer of the prostate gland and might live no longer than 2013.
Other than that, however, the biggest scoop that Wikileaks sprung on Zimbabwe was just how many senior Zimbabwean politicians were confiding in then-ambassador James McGee and his staff – including a number of ZANU-PF bigwigs.
Reports say President Robert Mugabe is furious over the disclosure of details about his health and other sensitive matters to US diplomats by Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Governor Gideon Gono.
Others in ZANU-PF are also displeased, showing this at the recent reopening of parliament by booing colleagues mentioned in the cables, such as Indigenization Minister Saviour Kasukuwere, chanting, “Wikileaks, Wikileaks.”
ZANU-PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo commented to the state-run, pro-ZANU-PF Herald newspaper that those leaks were disturbing in particular because top party officials had gone to secret meetings with what he called “hostile forces.”
Things were nearly as bad on the other side of the aisle. Top Movement for Democratic Change figures were also revealed to have met with officials of the US embassy, sometimes quoted as disparaging party leader Tsvangirai.
Other tidbits from the Wikileaks shed light on the underside of Zimbabwean politics. For instance, a cable said the late Solomon Mujuru engineered the presidential candidacy of Simba Makoni after failing to build sufficient support within ZANU-PF to oblige President Mugabe to step down.
The late Vice President Joseph Msika and then-ZANU-PF national chairman John Nkomo, meeting separately with US ambassadors, said the only way forward was for Mr. Mugabe to go.
ZANU-PF and MDC sources speaking on condition of anonymity say such revelations have created serious tensions within the parties.
ZANU-PF spokesman Gumbo tells Voice of America’s Studio 7 that ZANU-PF is witnessing an unfortunate tragedy and is launching an investigation in this matter.
When asked to comment on the reports of President Mugabe’s health, Gumbo responded by saying: “Why don’t you ask Dr Gono. The President as we know is in good health, so I don’t know what people are talking about."
The United States embassy for its part strongly condemned the release of the cables. Sharon Hudson-Dean, US Embassy spokesperson, says the disclosures could put lives at risk and jeopardize national security.
Ozias Tungwarara, director of the Open Society Institute’s Governance Monitoring and Advocacy project notes that confidential talks are a part of diplomacy and individuals have a right to hold their own views. But he said he fears the leaked cables will cause political instability.
“This should be looked at in the whole context of what constitutes freedom of expression and whether the Wikileaks saga has actually taken freedom of expression, freedom of media to other levels. These are expressions of opinion and that this should not frame a basis for vindictive action, ” he said.
Tungwarara says that given the lack of space for open political discussion, many stand to see their reputations tarnished simply for sharing their views with the diplomatic community.
Africa Confidential newsletter publisher Patrick Smith says one effect of the Wikileaks releases in Zimbabwe will be to discourage senior officials from sharing their thinking with diplomats even when given assurances of confidentiality.
“But at the end of the day there are four or five very powerful countries in the world – the US and China being the most powerful at the moment so I think people are always going to want to talk to diplomats from Washington and Beijing,” Smith added.
But commentator Takura Zhangazha says that the benefit of Wikileaks is that Zimbabweans now have intelligence that would otherwise not have come out, such as talk by ZANU-PF ministers about their desire to see a new generation take charge.
Zhangazha also said: “My immediate impression is that of double standards and individuals functioning at variance with the collective party position.”
Some have asked what was received in exchange for such disclosures. But political analyst John Makumbe says he has attended similar briefings where the only quid pro quo is a free meal.
He said: “Lunch, dinner, beer, soft drinks even (laughs). There is nothing more than that.”
London-based analyst George Shire says the leaks consist of "mere gossip,” but concedes that they show ZANU-PF’s foreign policy mindset is one of hostility to the west, quite different from the close engagement pursued by the MDC.
But Ralph Black, the US representative of the Tsvangirai MDC, says the cables must be looked at in the context of how the disclosures were colored by the views of US diplomats.
He added: “If there is any truth in the sentiments expressed. The question we should be asking ourselves is why didn’t we have that internal discussion? Why did we have to go and tell strangers? This is a culture that needs to be changed.”
Ultimately the Wikileaks disclosures may not alter the course of Zimbabwean history – but they have already given Zimbabweans a usefully candid perspective on politics in Zimbabwe through the lens of US diplomacy.