The government of Zimbabwe said Monday that it might expel U.S. Ambassador Christopher W. Dell because of its displeasure over speeches last week in which Dell accused the government of President Robert Mugabe of "corrupt rule" and "gross mismanagement."
A spokesman for Mugabe said the president was "extremely unhappy" with Dell. "He's undiplomatic. He's exceeded his bounds," said the spokesman, George Charamba, speaking from Harare, the capital. "There's been an attack by the U.S. ambassador on the government of Zimbabwe."
Charamba said a decision on whether to expel Dell would come this week. He said the action was being considered only after "a pile of incidents" going back to the ambassador's Senate confirmation hearings in June 2004, when Dell blamed Zimbabwe's troubles on "its government's misrule in pursuit of absolute power."
Charamba's comments followed several weeks of escalating tension between Mugabe's government and Dell, 48. He is a career Foreign Service officer who was previously ambassador to Angola and has held senior diplomatic posts in Mozambique, Serbia and Bulgaria.
U.S. Embassy officials, reached in Harare, declined to comment on Dell's status or on the accusations against him. In Washington, a State Department spokesman, J. Adam Ereli, said the U.S. government had received "no formal communication from the government of Zimbabwe" on the matter. He said Dell "and his comments very fairly and accurately reflect the policy of the United States."
Dell, who became ambassador in August 2004, kept a low profile until Oct. 10, when he walked into a restricted area of a botanical garden near Mugabe's residence. U.S. officials have said the area was poorly marked and that Dell entered accidentally.
Guards from Mugabe's presidential compound arrested Dell and detained him briefly. In the government-owned Herald newspaper later that week, Charamba accused Dell of intentionally provoking a diplomatic incident and said that, were it not for the restraint and professionalism of the presidential guards, Dell would have been shot.
"Elsewhere, and definitely in America, he would have been a dead man," Charamba said, according to the Herald.
The clash with Dell comes as Zimbabwe's domestic problems and international isolation continue to grow. The country is suffering from crippling shortages of fuel, food and foreign currency.
"This state is desperately in need of international assistance," said Brian Raftopoulos, a University of Zimbabwe professor, speaking by phone from Harare. "I would think an expulsion like that . . . would definitely not favor that cause."
Two weeks after the incident in the botanical garden, a column in the Oct. 29 issue of the Herald took an even more personal tack, suggesting that Dell was cruising for sex when he was arrested.
"We need to take the debate a little forward and ask where Mrs. Dell is; why Dell loves to frequent that part of the garden when everyone else has left," the Herald wrote.
The byline on the column was Nathaniel Manheru, but it is widely believed within Zimbabwe to have been written by Charamba. The spokesman for Mugabe acknowledged in a telephone interview Monday that Manheru was a pseudonym, but he said he did not know who the real author was.
Three days after the column appeared, Dell told a university audience in the Zimbabwean city of Mutare that Mugabe's rule, unbroken since 1980, was responsible for the country's collapsing economy, hyperinflation and chronic hunger.
Mugabe has blamed Western sanctions and drought for the troubles in the landlocked southern African nation of nearly 13 million people. In his speech in Mutare, Dell publicly disagreed, according to a text provided by the U.S. Embassy.
"The real answer is really quite different and simple, as well as quite shocking," Dell said. "Neither drought nor sanctions are at the root of Zimbabwe's decline. The Zimbabwe government's own gross mismanagement of the economy and its corrupt rule has brought on the crisis."
He also called Mugabe's policies "voodoo economics." Dell made similar remarks to an audience in Harare last Thursday.
On Saturday, the Herald again accused Dell of having a "habit of wandering in strange, unseemly places." On Monday, the paper wrote on its front page that Dell faced the possibility of expulsion for "continued meddling in the internal affairs of Zimbabwe."