‘This time, Bob, it’s personal’

Why is the international community so hung up about democracy in Zimbabwe?

Barrie Collins

Topics Politics

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The European Union has imposed ‘smart’ sanctions on Zimbabwe – meaning that President Robert Mugabe and his high-ranking officials will be refused visas to travel to EU member states and will have their assets in Europe frozen. The sanctions have generated a lot of anti-colonial rhetoric and gestures of defiance from Mugabe and co, which have dominated news headlines worldwide.

This isn’t the first time the international community has meddled in Zimbabwe’s affairs. And in Zimbabwe’s forthcoming presidential elections, the USA, the UK and the EU have made a list of demands and plan to monitor the elections to see if Zimbabwe passes the democracy test – seeming to have overlooked the fact that democracy imposed from without is not democracy at all.

Zimbabweans, who will be voting in presidential elections on 9 March, certainly face a difficult choice. They have endured four years of economic decline and falling living standards and have heard little debate about how things could be improved. Mugabe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), is using the leverage acquired from 21 years in office to dominate proceedings, allowing its supporters to play dirty. At the same time, attacks on Mugabe by the ‘international community’, particularly the USA and the UK, are at an all-time high.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s leading opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is an opportunistic alliance of white farmers, trade unionists and urban commercial interests. Its track record reveals that it is more concerned with having good relations with the international community than with presenting the Zimbabwean electorate with a convincing alternative. But with the current state of Zimbabwe’s relations with the international community, the MDC is right about one thing: a vote for Zanu-PF is a vote for harder times.

In the name of ‘defending democracy’, members of the international community have interfered extensively in Zimbabwe’s affairs in recent years.

Since November 1998, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has implemented undeclared sanctions by warning off potential investors, freezing loans and refusing negotiations on debt.

In September 1999, the IMF suspended its support for economic adjustment and reform in Zimbabwe.

In October 1999, the International Development Association (IDA, a multilateral development bank) suspended all structural adjustment loans, credits, and guarantees to Zimbabwe’s government.

In May 2000, the IDA suspended all other new lending to the government.

In September 2000, the IDA suspended disbursement of funds for ongoing projects under previously approved loans, credits, and guarantees.

In April 2000, the Zimbabwe Democracy Trust was established by mainly white Zimbabwean commercial figures, British ex-foreign ministers and former US assistant secretary of state for Africa, Chester Crocker. The trust’s stated objectives are ‘to help the democratic will of the people flourish’ (1) – but several of its patrons have substantial commercial interests in Zimbabwe. Crocker is a director of Ashanti Goldfields which owns Zimbabwe’s largest gold mine, and Sir John Collins, the driving force behind the trust, is the Zimbabwean chairman of National Power, a British company with a US$1.5 billion contract to develop a power station in the country.

In December 2001, the USA passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act – which says Mugabe can restore relations with international financial institutions only if he agrees to conditions covering the rule of law, the presence of Zimbabwean forces in the Congo, the land reform programme and the conduct of elections.

The upcoming presidential elections are certainly being marred by violence and intimidation by Zanu-PF supporters, reportedly resulting in several deaths. And a recent law curbing press freedom – which made any slur against Mugabe an imprisonable offence – did not help matters. But intimidation and press restrictions aside, there is no hard evidence that the votes in the presidential elections will not be properly counted.

So even though the EU concluded that intimidation had marred the results in Zimbabwe’s parliamentary elections in June 2000, it praised the polling process itself. On the basis of visiting 1729 polling stations, 40 percent of the total number, the EU teams ‘rated the polling process as good or very good in 84 percent of their reports, an impressive performance by international standards’ (2). And this was an election that the Zimbabwean government knew would be a close call, which indeed it turned out to be.

But this hasn’t stopped the demonisation of the Zimbabwean government by Western powers, international financial institutions and the media. ‘The title of worst government on Earth, the most brutal, destructive, lawless…can probably be claimed by Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe’, was the verdict of the opinion page editor of the New York Times (3).

Yet, as US congresswoman Cynthia McKinney pointed out when opposing the Zimbabwe Democracy and Development Act in the House of Representatives: ‘Zimbabwe is Africa’s second-longest stable democracy. It is multi-party. It had elections last year where the opposition, Movement for Democratic Change, won over 50 seats in the parliament. It has an opposition press which vigorously criticises the government and governing party. It has an independent judiciary which issues decisions contrary to the wishes of the governing party.’

McKinney continued: ‘if a foreign country were to pass legislation calling for a United States Democracy Act which provided funding for United States opposition parties under the fig leaf of “Voter Education”, this body and this country would not stand for it.’ (4)

So is democracy in Zimbabwe really under threat, as the EU and the USA would have us believe? And will the punitive measures imposed by Western powers enhance Zimbabwe’s democratic process?

The singling out of Zimbabwe seems odd, when you consider that the USA and the UK have close relations with Uganda and Rwanda. Neither country allows opposition parties and both have troops in the Congo. There are currently more problematic election issues elsewhere in Africa that are not generating anything near the same degree of interest. In Madagascar, for example, more than half a million supporters of the opposition came out in early February 2002 to protest the result of the first round of their elections.

A closer look at the passing of Zimbabwe’s media bill into law is instructive. It was passed unanimously after the government had accepted the MDC’s amendments. South African president Thabo Mbeki drew attention to this when he took issue with claims that the bill would spell the derailment of Zimbabwe’s democracy: ‘The opposition had introduced amendments that had been accommodated in the bill, making it acceptable to all parties and this was no mean achievement in a democratic process. What do you want Zimbabwe to do? To invite the North to draft the Bill? If the opposition is happy, your interest then is not about democracy but the need to control.’ (5)

Mbeki is right. The real issue for the West is not the accountability of the Zimbabwean government to its people, but the West’s dissatisfaction with the Zimbabwean government’s lack of compliance with its demands. Since the end of the Cold War, the USA and the UK have got used to a high degree of compliance on the part of African governments – and they are no longer prepared to tolerate those that insist doing things their own way. Faced with less than full compliance on the key issues of land reform and military withdrawal from the Congo, the international community is bringing out the big stick.

As the previous parliamentary elections revealed, land is a key issue for Zimbabweans. The current ‘fast track’ programme of expropriating white-owned farms and redistributing them among black Zimbabweans is a departure from the land reform programme that Mugabe agreed with international donors. Instead, his government is belatedly trying to put right an injustice that should have been resolved at the time of independence in 1980.

The 1979 Lancaster House agreement, which oversaw the transition to majority rule in Zimbabwe, ensured that the Zimbabwean government could use local currency only to buy land from farmers who were willing to sell. If it were to expropriate their property, it would have to compensate them with scarce and precious foreign exchange.

This agreement bound Zimbabwe for the next 20 years to a programme of land reform whose implementation would have cost billions. Having hinted that it would pay for it, the UK government handed over only a fraction of the money required – £44million – to make it happen (6). Once the agreement expired in 2000, negotiations resumed, but Britain added new conditions to its funding. By this time the patience of some of Zimbabwe’s self-styled war veterans had run out, and they started attacking farms.

As the champion of a guerrilla war for independence that peasants supported primarily because of promises of land reform, Mugabe was in no position to rein in those who represented the core of his electoral support. It seems that Mugabe has decided to cut his losses with the donors and use the issue of land reform as an election bid, in the hope that it will overcome popular resentment over falling living standards.

That other sticking point for the West, Zimbabwe’s intervention in the Congo, was made alongside the more significant intervention of Angola, in order to save the new government of Laurent Kabila from defeat at the hands of his erstwhile backers: Uganda and Rwanda. This was an opportunity for Mugabe to regain some of his standing as a regional statesman, since being overshadowed by the emergence of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

There have been strong reactions in African politics to the international community’s attacks on Zimbabwe. Amara Essy, secretary-general of the African Union, formerly the Organisation of African Unity, endorsed Mugabe’s initial rejection of foreign election observer teams, pointing out that Western countries do not invite African states to monitor their elections (7). South Africa’s foreign minister N’kozosana Zuma has been similarly forthright: ‘Our position is that there is no country, however powerful, which has the right to influence next month’s presidential election results in Zimbabwe. To show that, we are believers in democracy, we should leave Zimbabweans to choose the president of their choice.’ (8)

It is Western meddling in Zimbabwe that is undermining the accountability of the government to its electorate, since it has forced the contestants to respond to an external agenda. This is a far bigger threat to democracy than any of Zanu-PF’s bullying tactics.

Barrie Collins is a researcher in African international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

(1) British cash behind bid to combat Mugabe, Observer, 21 May 2000

(2) ‘Report of the EU Election Observation Mission on the Parliamentary Elections in Zimbabwe on 24-25 June 2000’, Chapter 5

(3) ‘A regime of thugs’, Anthony Lewis, New York Times, 5 May 2001

(4) Speech to House of Representatives, 4 December 2001

(5) The Herald (Harare), 7 February 2002

(6) We share the blame for Zimbabwe, George Monbiot, Guardian, 20 April 2000

(7) ‘OAU endorses Mugabe’s rejection of foreign observer teams’, South African Press Association (Johannesburg), 15 February 2002

(8) ‘South Africa: Minister says no country has rights to influence Zimbabwe polls’, BBC Monitoring Service – UK; 17 February 2002

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Topics Politics


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