Using Mugabe as a stick to beat Africa

Western observers are using Robert Mugabe’s refusal to stand down as an excuse to lambast the disobedient, failing nations of southern Africa.

Christopher Bickerton

Topics World

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The blame game around Robert Mugabe’s staying power has reached absurd proportions. Virtually everyone outside of Zimbabwe has been blamed for inaction, yet silence reigns over the role of the Zimbabwean people themselves. This reflects an inability to conceive of Zimbabweans as authors of their own fate, and it belies an ignorance concerning the necessity of domestic foundations for meaningful and long-lasting political change.

The blame game began early on, with calls for the United States and Britain to pressurise Mugabe into publishing the results of the 29 March poll and to stand down if he lost the vote. Some have since claimed that Britain’s responsibility stems from its inaction over Ian Smith’s regime in Rhodesia. Harold Wilson said at the time that Britain could not act ‘against kith and kin’ (1).

This was quickly extended to a call for the United Nations to act collectively. Among the first to do so was the Zimbabwean opposition – the Movement for Democratic Change, who claimed to have won the election – who warned that international intervention was necessary in order to stabilise a potentially violent transition to a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe (2). David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, argued that any electoral run-off should be supervised by an international presence.

In recent days, as Mugabe has continued to hold on to power and as his party, the Zanu-PF, has prevented the electoral commission from publishing all the results, the blame has shifted. One prime target has been China and its shipment of small arms which arrived in a South African port a few days ago, destined for Zimbabwe (3). Analysts have suggested that the timing was coincidental: the shipment would have been ordered before the close poll result that indicated Mugabe’s time was potentially up (4). China has defended itself by saying that it doesn’t interfere in the affairs of other countries. Nevertheless, this incident was cited by Western observers as further proof that China seeks to undermine the basic tenets of international order, fuelling conflict in Africa, undermining international alliances, and generally pursuing its interest regardless of the consequences. South African dockworkers were fêted as heroes for refusing to unload the arms shipment and promising to fight any scab labour smuggled in by the port authorities.

Alongside China-bashing, which has become a favoured pastime in the West in recent weeks (5), we now have Africa-bashing. South African president Thabo Mbeki’s recent comment that there is no crisis in Zimbabwe was merely taken as further proof of his political autism. Zimbabwean opposition leader, Morgan Tvsangirai, called for Mbeki to be ‘relieved from his duty’ (6). Mbeki has never been forgiven for daring to challenge the West’s moral authority regarding the AIDS pandemic in Africa. The Economist commented that if Mbeki believes there is no crisis in Zimbabwe, then there must be a moral crisis at the heart of the South African government (7). His successor as leader of the African National Congress party, and possibly as leader of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, has seemed more willing to pressurise Mugabe. This has earned him favourable commentary in the West.

The Economist goes further and blames African leaders in general for their complicity in Mugabe’s electoral trickery. It asks rhetorically, ‘why should Africa as a whole be taken seriously when its leaders… refuse to cooperate to remove such a cancer from their midst?’ (8) It concludes that African governments are morally corrupt and cannot gather the political will to confront Mugabe, and so it is no wonder the continent is in a bad state. It seems that the Mugabe affair is only a metaphor for the ills and malaise of Africa. The Economist damns all of black Africa: ‘It is not surprising that Western taxpayers should feel loath to be generous when African leaders en masse refuse to boot out one of their more wicked colleagues.’ (9)

From those who think Britain should do more for its former colony to those who think responsibility lies at the door of South Africa, the blame game around Mugabe has not stopped since the results of the election began to trickle in. Yet the truth is that it is only the Zimbabwean people who should be responsible for who governs them, whether this turns out to be Mugabe or not.

The difficulty has been that the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has been as complicit in this blame game as anyone else. The MDC has blamed everyone but itself for Mugabe’s staying power. MDC party members were among the first to call for international intervention. They have consistently refused to take the matter into their own hands, preferring to operate through legal channels. Ultimately, their strategy seems to be to rely on the court of international public opinion. Listening to their spokesmen and supporters is frustrating: they seem to be waiting for someone else – whether it’s the South African Development Community (SADC), the UN or a coalition of Western states – to push Mugabe out of power. Yet only the Zimbabwean population, in the form of the MDC or in some other form, can depose Mugabe. The MDC’s biggest weakness appears to be that it doesn’t trust itself or its own supporters to take power.

There are countless examples to draw on of what happens when a leader is deposed with the helping hand of outside actors. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected to office in Haiti in 1990 after securing massive support across the country’s impoverished population. His party was called Lavalas, the flood, and was a popular bottom-up political movement (10). Yet soon after, Aristide was ousted in a coup d’état by the country’s military and forced into exile. Instead of relying on the force of his own people to return to power, Aristide turned to the United Nations and to the United States. He returned to power in 1994 with the help of Bill Clinton and US troops. Though he remained incredibly popular, his power now passed through the goodwill of his international patrons. When the United States turned against him, Aristide’s days in office were numbered. In 2006 he was removed from office in a UN-authorised American-French campaign. Haiti now has 7,000 foreign troops on its soil, along with 1,000 foreign police officers, and Aristide languishes in exile.

When asked to reflect upon his role in Haiti’s recent past, Aristide’s justification for his reliance upon the US in 1994 is telling. He defended himself by saying that ‘the Haitian people are not armed… You’re kidding yourself if you think that the people can wage an armed struggle… the people have no weapons and they will never have as many weapons as their enemies. It’s pointless to wage a struggle on your enemies’ terrain, or to play by their rules. You will lose.’ (11) Yet people have armed themselves and fought their masters and their governments in the past. Aristide’s defeatism is particularly out of sync with his own national history: Haitian slaves armed themselves against their French masters and overthrew them.

International assistance doesn’t bring democracy; it only erects weak political institutions that are not grounded in popular will. Ukraine’s much-fêted ‘orange revolution’ in 2004 was a media-fuelled affair bankrolled by Western backers. They included George Soros’ Open Society foundation and the US National Endowment for Democracy, whose director used to head the CIA (12). The country’s ongoing political crises since the ‘revolution’ suggest how limited and fragile political change can be when it passes through outside-orchestrated acts of ‘People Power’.

The current crisis in Zimbabwe is overwhelmingly understood as the responsibility of everyone apart from the Zimbabwean people themselves. But only if they depose Mugabe can a properly democratic transition take place. Anything else will only put Zimbabweans in the hands of outside forces whose concerns are far removed from their own.

Christopher Bickerton is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford. He is co-editor of Politics without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations (UCL Press: 2007). (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill said American and European governments have transformed Mugabe’s Zimbabwe into the West’s whipping boy in Africa. In 2007, Western journalists spoke of a revolution in Zimbabwe, but David Chandler said the picture on the ground was more one of disillusionment and resignation. Philip Cunliffe looked at what it means for Darfur to have been colonised by ‘peacekeepers’. He argued that Bernard-Henri Lévy’s report from Darfur shows that liberal lust for Western intervention survived Iraq, and that African Union troops are being enlisted in Darfur to give a respectable face to Western intervention. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

(1) There are many villains to blame for Zimbabwe’s decade of horror, Observer, 13 April 2008

(2) Zimbabwe opposition calls for UN intervention, Daily Telegraph, 1 April 2008

(3) Zimbabwe arms ship quits South Africa, BBC News, 19 April 2008

(4) South African security analyst interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s World at One, 18 April 2008

(5) See spiked‘s Beijing 2008: Challenging China-Bashing campaign

(6) Tsvangirai on Mugabe and Mbeki, Guardian, 18 April 2008

(7) ‘Africa’s shame’, Economist, April 19th 2008, p13

(8) ‘Africa’s shame’, Economist, April 19th 2008, p14

(9) ‘Africa’s shame’, Economist, April 19th 2008, p14

(10) Lavalas also means ‘mass of people’ and ‘everyone together’. See Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the politics of containment, Peter Hallward, Verso (London), 2007: p317

(11) Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the politics of containment, Peter Hallward, Verso (London), 2007: p323

(12) For details on the reality behind ‘People Power’, see The Price of People Power, Guardian, 7 December 2004

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Topics World


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