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Escapades at the World Economic Forum

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This article is an extended excerpt from Professor Arthur Mutambara’s upcoming book: In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream: Volume 3.

What is the unique value proposition of the World Economic Forum (WEF)? Who gets to attend and why?

What are the learning and intellectual growth opportunities for young people who become WEF Young Global Leaders (YGLs)?

What are some of the inside stories, teachable moments, and leadership insights from the WEF annual meeting at Davos, Switzerland and other WEF events in China, India and Africa?

President Robert Mugabe once gate-crushed the WEF on Africa event in Tanzania. Fact or fiction? What exactly happened?

For answers to these questions and many more read the following:

Becoming a WEF Young Global Leader

As explained in Volume 2 of this series of memoirs, on 11 January 2007, I am nominated and accorded the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Young Global Leader (YGL) status. WEF is an independent international organisation committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.

Founded by Professor Klaus Schwab, it is incorporated as a not-for-profit foundation in 1971, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.

The YGL forum is a diverse multi-stakeholder community of the world’s most outstanding leaders who commit a portion of their time to jointly shaping a better future and thereby improving the state of the world.

It was created in 2004 by Schwab, the WEF Founder and Executive Chairman, as an independent foundation working in close partnership with the WEF. I am a WEF Young Global Leader from 2007 to 2013, and I attend WEF events in Europe, China, India, the United States and Africa.

Of immense importance and particular significance is the Annual Meeting of WEF in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, at the end of January each year.

At this meeting, global leaders from business, government, academia and civil society share insights and discuss global trends in interactive plenary sessions, intimate workshops and informal roundtables.

Davos brings together some of the world’s top policy – and decision-makers in an extraordinary atmosphere.

With Bill Gates and Bill Clinton at Davos
As Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, I attend WEF events in Davos every January in the years 2009 to 2013.

Private meetings include discussions with Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, US Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, President Barrack Obama‘s adviser Valerie Jarrett, former Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, Bill Gates and former US President Bill Clinton, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, and AfDB President Donald Kaberuka.

Other interesting interactions involve artists Emma Thomson, Bono, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio.

It is the year 2010, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting is being held from 27 to 31 January in Davos, Switzerland. As WEF Young Global Leaders, we have the unique opportunity of being separately addressed by Bill Gates and Bill Clinton.

In his address, Bill Gates speaks about the Microsoft story but spends more time on his new passion – global health.

In particular, he talks about the fight against malaria. He delves into the science and technology behind the push to eradicate malaria parasites. In his view, malaria is an overly complex disease, and we must understand the aetiology and resistance.

‘Do you do mass test and treat, do you do mass drug administration,’ he muses. Bill Gates basks in the complexity of the disease itself – how the various species of plasmodia morph and change and evade easy elimination – and the multifaceted way it must be fought.

During the question and answer session, I ask him about his own story: ‘Bill, I understand you dropped out of Harvard in your second year of studying Physics. How did you manage the risks involved? If it were me in your situation, the entire village would stone me, saying: “Arthur you have an opportunity to go to Oxford University but drop out.

How dare you?”’ Bill laughs and says: ‘I did not take that much of a risk. I spoke to my Professors at Harvard, and they encouraged me. They said: “Pursue your dreams. Go and form your company and blossom. However, if you run into difficulties and things do not work out, come back to Harvard and we will help you continue with your studies and earn your degree.”

You see, it was not as risky as you think!’

I am totally but pleasantly astonished. This is how it should be. The education system must mitigate and minimise the risks that bright students take as they pursue their dreams and become entrepreneurs.

This is part of the genius of the US academic system, which is based on credits, which one can complete in their own time frame.

I contrast this with the English system, such as we have in Zimbabwe, where you are withdrawn or discontinued from the academic program if you drop out or fail. Only in rare cases does one get a supplementary examination or is allowed to repeat a class.

The flexible US academic system puts a premium on entrepreneurship and job creation, whereas the English one is about creating workers. The questions by students within the British system are: ‘Professor, how do I get a First Class?

How do I graduate top of the class?  How do I qualify for a Master’s or PhD program?’ In the United states, the questions are: ‘Professor, how do I get a patent for my work? How do I commercialise my thesis or dissertation and form a company?’

In the United States, education is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If the end can be achieved without a degree, pursuit of the qualification can be set aside. Great entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are typical examples of this US attitude and disposition towards formal education.

With Bill Clinton, we are surprised at the way he is still sharp and well versed with current public policy issues in the United States and globally.

He has got it all at his fingertips. Bill presents a detailed analysis of contemporary political debates in the United States and deals with global challenges such as climate change, HIV/AIDS, poverty and nuclear weapons.

He is at his best. Raw intellect. Impeccable diction. Flawless eloquence. He also encourages us as young people to take up public service.

He also emphasises the importance of effective communication, not just oratorical skills, but media strategy, story-telling and creative use of modern technology. He suggests that he is not an outstanding orator but an effective communicator.

During discussions, I ask him: ‘If you had gotten into politics a little older, would you have been a better President? Also, what are your major regrets? What would you do differently?’ He does not answer these questions well.

I am quite surprised that the usually articulate Bill Clinton prevaricates and appears defensive. He seems cautious of anything that might force him to talk about the Monica Lewinsky saga. Anyway, I let the matter rest without further probing. I let it slide.

As fellow Rhodes Scholars, after the main meeting, he and I have a little chat about Oxford and life after that great institution. Later that evening Jackie (my wife) and I meet up again with Bill Clinton at one of the WEF social events.

They have quite a chat as Jackie reminds him of how they had met at the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts held at Hay-on-Wye in the United Kingdom in 2001. Of course, we have some beautiful pictures taken with the Former US President. – the V11 forms (the evidence) in Zimbabwean lingua!!

As WEF Young Global Leaders meeting and discussing with Bill Gates and Bill Clinton are some of the highlights of our WEF Davos experience in January 2010.

GNU Principals at the World Economic Forum
In addition to the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) Davos meeting, there is also the World Economic Forum on Africa, which takes place over three days. Like Davos, it is renowned for its informal style which aims to engender frank, open and detailed conversations among the most influential leaders – political, business, civil society and academic – with a stake in the African continent.

As WEF Young Global Leaders, some of us have the unique opportunity of attending the WEF annual meeting in Davos, WEF Africa meetings and ‘Summer’ Davos (an annual summer WEF meeting) in China.

In 2010, Tanzania hosts the World Economic Forum on Africa in Dar es Salaam from 5 to 7 May. This is the 20th anniversary of the World Economic Forum on Africa.

It is also the first time that the Forum’s Africa meeting is held in East Africa, away from its traditional African venue of Cape Town in South Africa, where it was hosted in 2009 by newly elected President Jacob Zuma.

With South Africa hosting the World Cup in June 2010, it is decided to move WEF on Africa away from the hectic preparations for the World Cup to Dar es Salaam.

The country’s President, Jakaya Kikwete, welcomes the news, saying: ‘It is heartening to see the positive impact that the World Economic Forum has on key issues of global concern.

This unique gathering regularly convenes a remarkably diverse group of friends of the continent who are united in their optimism of what Africa can, must and will achieve.’ The theme of this year’s gathering is ‘Rethinking Africa’s Growth Strategy’.

The session on Zimbabwe takes place on 6 May 2010 under the topic ‘The Future of Zimbabwe.’ It features President Robert Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and myself.

Also present are African Sun’s Shingai Munyeza, Old Mutual’s Kuseni Dlamini, TV host Julie Gichuru, and Runa Alam of Development Partners International, among many other luminaries.

We discuss Zimbabwe’s future, the reforms being undertaken, and how businesses were adjusting their operational strategies to the new political and economic developments.

Sanctions, indigenisation, investment drive, and the need for a shared vision were also discussed. Wait a minute, I have gone ahead of myself! The session on Zimbabwe is not part of the WEF agenda.

The unscheduled panel that almost never happened
The historic panel discussion in Tanzania by the three Zimbabwe Government of National Unity (GNU) Principals hosted by WEF Chairman, Professor Klaus Schwab, is not on the WEF programme. This unique and unprecedented global platform is a product of last-minute and behind-the-scenes efforts.
It almost does not happen!


Here is the sequence of events. As a WEF Young Global Leader, at one of our sessions, Professor Klaus Schwab approaches me and says, ‘Arthur, you are here at WEF. The Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, is also attending WEF.

I understand President Robert Mugabe is in Dar es Salaam for a separate event – meeting of Southern African liberation movements. Why can’t we get the three of you – the GNU Principals – to share a platform at WEF? We can organise a panel discussion on Zimbabwe.’ The potential significance of such a shared forum strikes me. I say to Klaus: ‘Give me 30 minutes.’


I dash off to consult Morgan Tsvangirai, the Prime Minister. While he agrees to participate, he is sceptical about whether I can convince Robert Mugabe. Off, I rush to the President’s hotel room.

His usual clumsy hangers-on and shameless bootlickers – including Emmerson Mnangagwa, George Charamba, Simbarashe Mumbengegwi and Munyaradzi Kajese – are in his room when my message gets to him, requesting to meet him and discuss the potential WEF panel discussion.

To a man, they all viciously argue against the idea. They discourage Mugabe from participating. ‘It is a set-up for humiliation’, they pontificate with shameful lack of creativity and insight. The ever cunning, astute and Machiavellian Mugabe asks all of them to leave the room.

He decides to discuss the matter with me alone – just the two of us. As I walk into his hotel room, the crafty political gladiator graciously welcomes me. With a wily smile, he gets down to business: ‘Professor Mutambara, what is the state of play?

What is going on?’ I explain to him the efficacy, value and significance of the event to the country – showcasing the GNU outside Zimbabwe by its three Principals to a global audience of business, political and civil society leaders. It is the first time such a possibility has occurred.

‘This is an unprecedented opportunity, Mr President.’ I boldly assert, and thereafter, effectively articulate and present an impenetrable case.

He asks a few clarification questions and agrees to participate. He decisive and unequivocal. ‘Let us do it, Professor. I am on board. Go and brief Klaus, accordingly. Good show! (his favourite phrase after every meeting).’

I am relieved and excited in equal measure. President Robert Mugabe has just taken my advice over the views of his unsophisticated, thoughtless and fawning cheerleaders – the bungling and inept lot!

As I leave Mugabe’s hotel room and close the door behind me, I am besieged by curious and nervous bootlickers who are milling around outside Mugabe’s room. All the usual suspects are there. I confidently declare: ‘The President has agreed to participate. The Zimbabwe session is on!’

Emmerson Mnangagwa and George Charamba almost collapse and faint. They are apoplectic with fear and despondency, laced with a twinge of primitive envy.

Charamba will later write in the Zimbabwe Herald Newspaper that ‘Arthur Mutambara was either foolhardy or a genius to propose such a successful platform to President Robert Mugabe!’ Umm really? What stark choices! Am I allowed to select between the two rationales, or it is for others to determine? Quite comical, indeed.

Well, the WEF platform on Zimbabwe is a roaring success. Again, I am going ahead of myself. Let us step back for a minute.

With commitments from both the Prime Minister and the President, I rush back to Klaus. I excitedly announce to him, ‘We are on! My two colleagues, the Prime Minister and the President have agreed.’ I expect him to be ecstatic, but no, Professor Klaus Schwab is suddenly subdued and circumspect.

He looks worried. It is that proverbial case of: ‘Be careful what you wish for, lest it comes true!’ He is now concerned that the radical, unpredictable and unrestrained Robert Mugabe might cause a disruptive scene during the WEF panel and damage his well-crafted and maintained global WEF brand. He does not want that at all. What can he do now, at this late stage?

He initiated the whole exercise. How can he back out now? I look at him with intense eyes and a stern face that speak more than words. ‘Of course, the show must go on, damn it.’ I do not have to utter that sentence. It is written all over my demeanour.

A troubled and bothered, Professor Klaus Schwab decides to organise a pre-meeting with three GNU Principals in which he seeks to manage Robert Mugabe. Consequently, we – the four of us – get together in his onsite WEF office just before the panel discussion starts.

Typical of Mugabe, he is quite prompt, and arrives exactly on time, to the minute. Klaus is a complete nervous wreck. In trembling voice devoid of confidence, he begins by saying: ‘Welcome President Robert Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara to this short preparatory meeting for our panel discussion on Zimbabwe.

Gentlemen, as you know, the WEF is a non-political organisation. We want this panel discussion to be orderly and productive.’

With his usual sharp presence of mind and confident demeanour, Mugabe quickly interjects: ‘What do you mean non-political?’ Klaus freezes and starts to stammer sheepishly and incoherently.

It is a miserable sight. In the end, all he does is explain the procedure of the panel discussion; that he will ask us questions starting with Robert Mugabe, next Morgan Tsvangirai and then me. He will then open the discussion to the audience.

The panel discussion on ‘The Future of Zimbabwe’ proves to be the best event of the WEF on Africa held in Tanzania in 2010. We interact well, present our remarks amicably, and answer all the questions in a civil and collegial manner.

Klaus effectively chairs the session, and there are no disruptions or outbursts. Everyone behaves statesmanly.

The only slight hitch is that Mugabe gives a rather long and boring statement on Zimbabwean history. Well, it could have been worse.

A number of African Presidents and Former Presidents are in the audience, including the host President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, SA President Jacob Zuma, and Former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa. Business and civil society leaders from all over the world are present. It is a great marketing opportunity for Zimbabwe.

Mugabe’s overzealous hangers-on are also present to witness this fantastic event which they had unsuccessfully tried to stop. Shame on them.

Before the session, without our knowledge and in his nervousness, Klaus has taken the precautionary measure of limiting media coverage of the panel discussion on Zimbabwe.

He restricts it to the WEF press resources only. As already explained, he is unsure whether it will not be a disastrous escapade that ruins his well-respected global brand – the WEF.

When the event is massively successful, without the feared Mugabe disruptions, Klaus is immensely relieved. In fact, he is extremely pleased with the session and regrets his decision to limit media access to the event. He then shares the full WEF video recording of the event with all media houses – national, continental and global. It goes viral on social media platforms.

The WEF panel discussion on Zimbabwe, which almost never happened, is quite a sensation across the world.

In his remarks at the session, Tsvangirai says that Zimbabwe no longer represents a risk to investors.

‘The political crisis no longer exists. The country is making progress, and it is time that investors start looking at Zimbabwe from a different perspective.’

Robert Mugabe reiterates the call for an end to sanctions. ‘Why the sanctions should be imposed on us we don’t understand, to tell you the truth, and this from Europe and the United States and not from the rest of the world.’

In my remarks,  I start by thanking Professor Klaus Schwab for providing us with a platform at WEF to discuss and share with  investors, captains of industry, civil society leaders and government officials from all over the continent and beyond. I then proceed to say:
‘What we are trying to do in our country is lay the foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Zimbabwe. We seek to make our nation a globally competitive economy. As the Zimbabwean leadership – the three of us on this panel – we take full responsibility for both the failures and successes of our arrangement –  the Government of National Unity. In fact, we take total unequivocal ownership of the shortcomings. This is a paradigm shift we are pushing and emphasising for all Africans. Taking responsibility for problems leads to solutions. Yes, we have made significant and substantial strides. However, we intend to solve all the challenges we are facing in implementing the Global Political Agreement.’

I also explain that coalition governments, by their very nature, are particularly problematic:
‘In our case, we have three parties with different perspectives and conflicting ambitions working in the same arrangement. So, judge us within the context of the challenges germane to coalition governance, but more importantly, take cognisance of the fact that our arrangement is coming from protagonists who were ruthlessly fighting each other a short two years ago. Indeed, we were literally at each other’s throats.’

I conclude by appealing directly to the investors:
‘Please take a plunge and come to Zimbabwe, not for charity but in pursuit of commercial interests and, yes, profits. As your investments flourish, our country will develop and prosper. Indeed, come to Zimbabwe and work with us in a win-win partnership. If you delay or prevaricate because you are sceptical and dubious about Zimbabwe, well it is your loss. Take a plunge. The time is now.’

In addition to our remarks, we field a lot of questions and comments from the audience. Everything goes flawlessly and the auditorium is electric with both enthusiasm and passion. Indeed, it is a great panel discussion on Zimbabwe.  As already indicated, the event is, by a wide margin, the most exciting session of the 2010 World Economic Forum on Africa held in Tanzania from 5 to 7 May 2010.

When all I said and done, it is clear that Robert Mugabe does not gate-crush the WEF event on 6 May 2010, as falsely reported in some sections of the media. He is belatedly invited by WEF Founder, Professor Klaus Schwab, and he behaves pretty well!

All intriguing and dramatic episodes must come to an end.

The WEF escapades in Tanzania are now over.

On 8 May 2010, it is time to head back to the sunshine city of Harare from the beautiful harbour city of Dar es Salaam.

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