Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Archive for April, 2008

Zimbabwe should put ‘special relationship’ phase with Britain behind it

Posted by CM on April 8, 2008

President Mugabe in recent years has talked forcefully and endlessly about defending Zimbabwe’s “sovereignty.”

“Hands off Britain, you have no right to comment on our affairs, we are a sovereign nation,” has been his constant refrain. He has also often talked about how Britain did not live up to its promises in regards to land reform. The most notorious example of this he cites is the now infamous 1997 letter from one time UK minister Claire Short to then Zimbabwean agriculture minister, Kumbirai Kangai.

What were considered the offending sentences were, “…we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish and as you know we were colonised not colonisers.”

The rest is history.

Mugabe reacted to this with outrage, leading to the long chain of events that have led Zimbabwe to where it is today, and official relations with Britain plunging to somewhere between non-existent  and rock bottom. Zimbabwe eventually pulled out of the British Commonwealth and Mr. Mugabe uses every opportunity he can to take rude potshots at Britain. It is not at all surprising that the British political establishment and media seem to want Mugabe to go even more feverishly than Zimbabweans, which is saying quite a lot.

For all his talk about ‘sovereignty,’ in becoming so obsessed with and emotionally hung up about the British, Mugabe unwittingly and ironically gives them far more influence on Zimbabwe’s affairs than they should. The British may actually still be in power in Zimbabwe because they seem to control the president’s heart, mind and soul. Instead of thinking about what is good for Zimbabwe in what he says and does, Mugabe instead seems to mainly be motivated by the thought, “what will annoy the British the most?” This is giving them effective control over his actions.

Mugabe constantly rails, “Zimbabwe must never be a colony again.” How many Zimbabweans could disagree with this? After stating the obvious as if it was some great revelation, he then contradicts his own rhetoric by showing in his obsession with the British that he has allowed them to colonize his mind.

Here is my proposal: Let us set the British free from any sense of obligation for anything in our ‘sovereign’ Zimbabwe. By so doing we will also be setting ourselves free from the colonial idea that our former foreign ruler can or must try to solve our problems. Whether it is how to organize and fund a type of land reform that works for us or anything else, we would then first look inward for answers before we look outwards for assistance. That would be truly showing maturity, independence and ‘sovereignty.’

Britain should be just one of the many countries we have good relations with. All this talk about a big post-Mugabe aid package in which Britain plays a leading role in providing money, reform and training of the security forces and all kinds of other things should be put aside. It is merely to revive the old dysfunctional donor-recipient, master-native relations that began our record of sorry relations with Britain. Relations with the former colonial power that are centrally tied around aid have not only not significantly helped Africa move forward, they also deepen a sense of dependency by the recipient and give the donor rude notions about still wanting to control the natives.

We should not have negative relations with Britain; that is not my point. But neither should either party put any special expectations on the other. Our relations with the British should be cordial but no more so than those with any other distant nations like China, Russia, Pakistan or whichever.

Let us set the British free, in the process also setting ourselves free as a nation.

But whether Mr. Mugabe can ever free himself of the pitiful British colonization of his whole being that obviously causes him so much rage and anguish is questionable. The poor man is haunted, tormented by thoughts and visions of the British. It is so tragic and ironic how Mugabe has allowed Britain to so effectively compromise his personal sovereignty.

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On Tsvangirai’s Wall Street Journal article

Posted by CM on April 7, 2008

Putative but not yet installed president Morgan Tsvangirai has recently become quite the writer, with recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and in today’s The Guardian.

Let’s see what might be picked up from his thoughts in the WSJ of March 21, just over a week before the recent election, in his opinion piece headlined “Freedom for Zimbabwe.”

Mr. Tsvangirai starts his article off with a bang. “Daily, the representatives of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the political party that I lead, are harassed, tortured, imprisoned without trial and even killed,” he writes.

There is no doubt about the onslaught the MDC has been under for years, and I don’t doubt the harassment increased in the days and weeks before the election, despite this also being lauded as a fairly peaceful election even by the MDC itself. It is important to remember “peaceful,” meaning here the relative absence of systematic, wholesale violence, does not necessarily imply the “free and fair” conditions that we so often talk about without precise definition.

But writing for a distant US audience, the wording of the sentence I have quoted suggests that torture and murder of MDC representatives are daily occurrences. Any death linked to election violence would be one too many. But any evidence of a pattern of daily murders of MDC members would be a pogrom that Zimbabweans would surely be widely aware of, and that the world needs to be provided evidence of. Mugabe’s regime is brutal, but I have not heard even the MDC claim that its officials or members are being targeted for murder in the way Tsvangirai’s wording suggests. No one I know of from any quarter has claimed that there have been any election-connected deaths at all in the run up to the just ended election, although I certainly stand to be corrected.

The average Zimbabwean reader would understand that Tsvangirai probably did not mean to imply the daily targeting for murder of his officials that the sentence could be intepreted to mean. But I think that is precisely how the primarily American audience of the WSJ article are likely to have understood it. Americans have not only been primed to think that Zimbabwe is a war-zone, they are already conditioned to think the absolute worst about Africa. And of course in this case, this fits in with the ogre that Mugabe has been painted to be, which far exceeds the reality of his still oppressive rule.

Overstating things in the way Tsvangirai does in the first part of his paragraph is probably considered fair game in the propaganda war against Mugabe, who is himself not above these sorts of tactics. And it allows a Tsvangirai who had expected to be sitting in the presidential palace at this point after the election, to cast himself to the Americans as a particularly brave fighter against the image-battered Mugabe.

Tsvangirai is indeed brave but pandering to American ignorance and prejudices about Africa in this way is a most unfortunate way to wage his propaganda war against Mugabe. The way this careless kind of tactic feeds American stereotypes about Africa and distorts the reality in Zimbabwe does at least as much long term damage as whatever benefits it might win Tsvangirai in the short term.

Before I am beyond the first paragraph of an article I am hoping will give me helpful insights into the thinking of a man who hopes to get my vote and to be my president, I am already asking myself, “What is he trying to do with this kind of language?” Assure and woo potential investors from among the WSJ’s prestigious readership? Ingratiate himself with the US political establishment? Rally the support and sympathy of Americans for his fight against Mugabe? Whichever it is, I am already very uncomfortable that he so makes his point by the kind of careless distortion implied by the phrase in his article I have picked on, whether the implication of a campaign of systematic daily murder was deliberate or just an “innocent” slip.

Having lived in the US, one of the things that would make my blood boil most frequently were just the kind of often crude stereotypes about Africa that pertain there, and that Tsvangirai walks right into by overstating the security situation in Zimbabwe at the time of writing his article. So after paragraph one of the article, I am not feeling too favourably disposed towards my possible future president.

Maybe I’mjust uptight, overly sensitive and critical of Tsvangirai and need to give the man a break. Let us move along with his article.

Tsvangirai then spends the bulk of the rest of the article highlighting Zimbabwe’s main problems over the last few years, Mugabe’s role in bringing them about and in broadly outlining how he and the MDC propose to address them. The way he identifies the economic issues and his prescriptions no doubt were sweet music to his WSJ readers. The article displays a faith in classic IMF-World Bank-US style thinking about how nations should get ahead.

…committment to protecting persons and property…compessions for those who lost property in an unjust way…balance between reconciliation and accountability…restoring the independence of the judiciary…slashing bureaucratic red tape…will open economic opportunity to all Zimbabweans…taming the government’s appetite for spending…reduction of the number of ministers to 15…government will have to live within its means…Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe must become independent of the government…Most state-owned companies are woefully inefficient, will be privatized or shut down…

Most of this sounds harmless enough and is the kind of non-specific campaign rhetoric one would expect from any politician following the script of the reigning paradigm of how the world is currently economically structured. Tsvangirai gives no indication that he recognises that there has been a raging debate across the world about the effectiveness and benefits of classic IMF thinking about how to alleviate poverty and foster widespread economic growth in developing countries. Many of the most dynamic developing countries actually owe their progress to discarding classic IMF-style advice which assumes free markets that all economies have equal access to, to give just one example. The need to slash public spending, another central tenet of that kind of economic dogma is now questioned by many economists.

However, even for those of his broad recovery proposals I am not completely at ease with, I still grant that countries that intend to get ahead economically must just be pragmatic enough to accept that they must master the rules of the game as it is played in the world today, rather than hope that they can first change those rules. This means finding ways of manouvering around the many parts of that game that are “unfair,” rather than just whining about the unfairness. This is a big part of the lesson we can learn from the emerging economies of Asia.

But I have the uncomfortable feeling that Tsvngirai is pandering to his American audience, trying too hard to impress and win over a foreign audience before he has won me, a Zimbabwean, over. The WSJ is surely a prestigious publication to get an article published in, but how relevant is that for a person running for president of a country in southern Africa? When last did Mr. Tsvangirai write an article for a Zimbabwe-dedicated website or publication ? Or even for any publication primarily read by Africans, whether on the continent or abroad. My point is not at all that he should not have written for the WSJ, but that this to me is a further reason to worry about his whole orientation.

I do not want another president who is a paranoid isolationist in the mould of Mugabe. But I do want a president who is more careful and smarter about his engagement with the Western world than I believe Tsvangirai to be. That for me partly means being cognisicant of Africa’s history and how being patted on the head as a good boy by Western powers can be an initially flattering blessing that may come back to haunt a naive politician. I want a president who has a deep knowledge of African history and of Africa’s present day aspirations to engage positively with the West, but with a cool, wary head, not a childish sort of over-excitement.

I know I am only supposed to be concerned about how the country can effect its rejection of Mugabe at the ballot last week. I am choosing to look ahead beyond that to try and say, “Tsvangirai, beware;watch your back.”

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Who do the voters think they are?

Posted by CM on April 7, 2008

Robert Mugabe has long argued that by the standards the Western world uses for what qualifies as “democracy,” Zimbabwe passes with flying colours.

For instance, elections have been held pretty much on time without fail since independence in 1980, which is a lot more than can be said for many other countries that are neverthless on good terms with the West, unlike Zimbabwe. Rwanda and Uganda immediately come to mind, but there are many others. Opposition parties and critical newspapers exist. There is a parliament, there is in theory a Western-style separation of powers and so on.

Mugabe also points out correctly that it his party that “brought democracy” by overturning white minority rule. “How dare the very people who resisted our efforts for self-rule lecture us about democracy?” has been one of the difficult to refute criticisms he has hurled back at the British at his criticism of his rule.

We now know of course that it is possible to have the shells of the institutions and electoral processes that we have been told constitute “democracy” without actually seeing very much of that democracy. When Mugabe’s 1980s-era plans to introduce a one party state were thwarted, he found that it was quite possible to have the same effect even in a situation where opposition parties existed. So he became a master at co-opting or beating down his opponents. Parliament exists, but has pretty much always been a rubber stamp for whatever he wanted to do. Even when the MDC won a sizeable number of seats in the election of 2000, the influence of parliament on anything shrunk even more than the situation when it was almost completely composed of ZANU-PF “legislators.”

But despite the many imperfections of the system, Zimbabwe under Mugabe has indeed had all the forms of “democracy,” if not the substance. Gordon Brown has not stood before British voters as a candidate for prime minister.  The American election that gave George Bush his second term in office was messy at best. So is Mugabe a dictator or a democrat?

He is both. He is a stickler for a kind of formalism in a very British way. Parliament must therefore exist and he enjoys opening each session with an awkward kind of colonial pomp and ceremony, complete with the trip in a classic open-top Rolls Royce, horse riders at its side and with a heavy gold ceremonial chain draped around his neck.

But the Mugabe who is very attached to these shows of the trappings of British-style parliamentary procedure is also brilliant at thwarting its essence. Parliament exists as a body but all effective power is in Mugabe’s hands. When parliament can usefully serve as a veneer of legitimising “democracy,” that is fine. But if it has significant members of the opposition and brings up uncomfortable issues, simple: simply ignore it.

Similarly, when the electorate votes in the “right” way, the polls are used as a sign of how “democratic” the country is. Humble sounding speeches are made about how the leaders respect “the people.” But when the voters get wayward and drift towards the opposition, the thin veneer of “democracy” is replaced by the menace” of  “you voters have been confused and misled, you don’t really know what you are doing.”

Zimbabwe under Mugabe has been a test book example of how elections themselves can be used to thwart democracy. A big continuing challenge is to evolve ways for democracy to be reflected by much more than the mere existence of multiple political parties, and for the elections to genuinely be processes that reflect the public will.

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The scenario of a unity government headed by Simba Makoni

Posted by CM on April 3, 2008

Much of the focus on the Zimbabwe election results in the last several hours has understandably been on the fact that the MDC has won more seats than ZANU-PF for the first time. But at 97 to 95, with a handful of results that will not change the closeness of the results much outstanding, it is amazing that ZANU-PF won that many seats.

Rigging and /or intimidation may account for some of this, but not for all or necessarily even most of the ruling party’s seats. It has sort of been assumed that popular disgust and despair at the state of the country would result in an electoral wipeout for ZANU-PF.

Yet the result may suggest that the strong desire to see Mugabe go did not necessarily automatically extend to the rest of his party. This would tend to be supported by the fact that his closest henchmen, some of his most senior ministers, lost their seats while many non-cabinet ZANU-PF MPs with good relations with their constituents were re-elected. Voters may have carefully, deliberately turned out individual members of Mugabe’s inner circle without necessarily rejecting ZANU-PF in a blanket way.

Other plausible factors could have been the weaker campaign abilities as well as the poor quality and appeal of many MDC candidates. While this is the first time the MDC has been the majority party, voters have had two previous elections to now know that many of its winning candidates were lacklustre and un-inspiring as MPs, just like many of ZANU-PF’s.

Even if Tsvangirai is sworn in as president, his party’s parliamentary majority is so razor thin that he will not be able to ram through constitutional changes without ZANU-PF support. Mugabe may be on his way out, but based on its number of parliamentary seats, ZANU-PF is far from finished.

The exit of Mugabe as president, but with the continuing strong minority representation of ZANU-PF in parliament, could be a good outcome for the country. A polarizing figure would be gone, but the new ruling party would not have such an overwhelming parliamentary majority to become dangerous in the mould of ZANU-PF. And there would in theory be the important balance of knowing that if the MDC failed to deliver results as a government, a ZANU-PF that rejuvenated itself under a new leader could pose a threat to them at the next election. This would be the the beginning of a culture of real democracy, checks and balances and electoral power in the hands of the voters, rather than in the hands of party machines.

Everyone is having a lot of fun playing Zimbabwe expert, with all sorts of guesses as to what is really going on behind the scenes as the announcement of the official presidential results are held up for the fifth day. Other “Zimbabwe experts” like Heidi Holland, who is making a lot of capital out of her recent interview with Mugabe, even imagine they know what is going on in his head!

But an interesting, plausible and possibly desirable scenario that has been speculated about is that of a government of national unity with Simba Makoni as its head, not Morgan Tsvangirai. What’s next for Mugabe? by Fiona Forde on South Africa’s IOL website, is a brilliant article. It may be no more than the mind games, speculation and wishing that the rest of the media is doing, but it genuinely adds some new insight when compared to the vast acres of shallow nonsense pouring forth from British and American sources.

On the face of it this seems like an outandish idea and a negation of the will of the voters who voted for Tsvangirai. But  Godfrey Chanetsa, described as “Makoni’s right-hand man and a former spokesperson for Mugabe,” makes a compelling if somewhat pompously expressed argument for this possibility.

“This country doesn’t need regime change now. It needs new leadership. And many people believe Simba is the man who can bring this country to the level that it should be,” the report quotes Chanetsa as saying.

Chanetsa continues, “This is not about numbers. The eight percent (Makoni’s share of the presidential vote) is an illusion. Many people were afraid to vote for Simba, afraid of letting Zanu-PF in the back door and losing their chance of getting rid of Robert. But if they got rid of Robert, do you still think they would see Morgan as the right man for the job?”

Chanetsa implies the answer would be “no.” It must be kept in mind that he would naturally be expected to angle for an important role for his boss, and a cushy government job for himself. But still, the answer for me is clearly “no.” I would thank Tsvangirai for playing a historically important national role by turning out Mugabe, but would be relieved at the prospect that he would not be the president. I would not at all mind if he was given some important sounding ceremonial role along with a big house and the most fashionable car and other perks to soothe his ego. A Makoni presidency under the circumstances in which he led a unity government that included both the MDC and ZANU-PF would be a splendid compromise for me, even though I was lukewarm about Makoni’s candidacy as an independent.

The article reasonably points out that “the likelihood of Tsvangirai handing over the reigns to Makoni, who won only a fraction of the vote, is slim. ”

Chanetsa counters: “If (Tsvangirai) goes it alone he would be dealing with a very    unstable structure for the next 10 years because the dismantling of the entrenched  Zanu-PF structure will take a long time. But we can avoid conflict if we go the route of a government of national unity.”

Makoni could still play an important role because ” many in the ruling party saw in Makoni a man who could help them bridge the divide between the Mugabe era and what followed next,” according to Chanetsa.

As Makoni adviser Kudzai Mbudzi points out, “The military…don’t trust Tsvangirai, but they also know that Mugabe would be heavily defeated in a second round. And with Simba backing Morgan in the event of a run-off, they knew it was time for a compromise.”

While the Western media is delirious with joy at the idea that Mugabe is finished, the scenario played out by Chanetsa is a far more intelligent reading of the governance and power realities that prevail even in the event that Mugabe accepts defeat and gracefully steps down. The relatively small margins of Tsvangirai’s presidential and parliamentary victories, and the surprisingly high proportions of votes for Mugabe and ZANU-PF mean that the power dynamics remain very fluid.

It would be unfair and un-natural to expect Tsvangirai to warmly embrace a government of national unity, particularly one in which he is not the leader. But the reality of the situation may very well make such a compromise possible, desirable and a very good way forward for Zimbabwe.

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Makoni to be Tsvangirai’s finance minister?

Posted by CM on April 2, 2008

With the parliamentary election having been such a close contest, the handful of seats won by the Mutambara faction of the MDC will obviously be important in the power tug of war between ZANU-PF and the main MDC faction.
It is hard to imagine that the Mutambara MPs would agree to align with ZANU-PF to possibly form a coalition with the slimmest of majorities over the MDC, but nothing is impossible. And Mugabe is a master at buying people with inducements of one type or another, although he is such a weakened “brand” at the moment that any politican would have to think about the serious long-term (and perhaps short term as well) consequences of getting onto a sinking ship, regardless of the carrots dangled.
Simba Makoni’s people (if he had any!) did not win any seats, although if he had won the presidential contest many of those who won parliamentary seats on a ZANU-PF ticket would have claimed to have been his silent supporters.But Makoni may have some bargaining power in the uncertainty of the present impasse. A Tsvangirai presidency must worry about not having liberation war-era credibility in a political environment in which that still means a lot, and in which a strong ZANU-PF minority could exploit that to say, “see what Tsvangirai is doing with his recovery policies, he’s giving the country back to the British colonizers.” This would be especially true if Tsvangirai attempts any wholesale reversal of the seizures of previously white-owned farms.

So it is very much in Tsvangirai’s interests to find a way of neutralising this threat. Roping in Makoni into his cabinet may be one way of doing so. This would help to get many secret ZANU-PF supporters of Makoni’s onto the Tsvangirai bandwagon, and to begin to lure them from the spell of whatever Mugabe may try to offer to avoid mass defections from a disempowered, disoriented ZANU-PF.

An completely unverifiable rumour beginning to do the rounds is that Simba Makoni has been offered his one time post of minister of finance in Tsvangirai’s cabinet. This would be a smart move on Tsvangirai’s part, and for Makoni, would be a way for him to avoid slinking off into political oblivion. There are also stories doing the rounds of ZANU-PF officials seriously wooing Makoni to support Mugabe instead. The closeness of the race may well make Makoni a king maker.

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MDC parliamentary majority only significant if Mugabe goes

Posted by CM on April 2, 2008

So the official election results and those of the MDC on the parliamentary polls agree: The MDC has a wafer thin majority.

This is of huge symbolic significance but will only have practical political meaning if Tsvangirai is also declared president. If, as Mugabe & Co. might still be gambling, they “concede” parliament to the MDC but decide to have Mugabe tough things out and hang on to the presidency, then the MDC having the majority in parliament will mean nothing.

Parliament has never been allowed to have anywhere near the over-sight authority it should. When it was almost exclusively ZANU-PF before 2000 it was a mere rubber stamp for whatever legislation Mugabe wanted passed. When the MDC won a substantial minority of seats in the general election of 2000, the role of parliament was weakened and reduced so that the opposition party could not even nip at the ruling party’s heels effectively.

In a normal parliamentary democracy it is close to untenable for a president to be from one party and the legislature to be dominated by a different party, especially when the two are at such poles apart as are ZANU-PF and the MDC. The president in such a situation would effectively be a lame duck, unable to have his bills passed. But Mugabe has and would simply avoid parliament and try to carry on with all effective power concentrated in his person.

But the first time ever moral authority of having the electoral commission certify that the MDC won more parliamentary seats than Mugabe’s party makes any gambit short of an outright coup difficult to sustain as a strategy for him to hang on.

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What future for ZANU-PF?

Posted by CM on April 2, 2008

One of the reasons Robert Mugabe has given in recent years for not retiring has been his expressed fear that ZANU-PF would disintegrate into infighting over how to succeed him, and that he wanted to stay on until a natural successor emerged to take over from him.

This was cynical and self-serving of course, but that is now an issue of grave importance for the party as it contemplates defeat in parliament and the possible exit of the man who has dominated its affairs for the past 30 years. Remaining united while choosing a successor to Mugabe as a ruling party was going to be difficult enough. But losing power as well as losing Mugabe as the party’s flag-bearer at the same time could decimate ZANU-PF and threaten its very existence.

There is no ideology beyond access to state resources that can be said to hold the party together. Unless MDC made some huge blunders during its first few years in power ZANU-PF will initially have little credibility and authority as an opposition party. If the MDC decides to pursue cases of corruption and abuse of power, many of ZANU-PF’s leading lights would be brought down, or at least severely weakened by being tied up in the courts for a long time. It is likely that the picture that will emerge from exposed details of ZANU-PF’s last several years in power will not be pretty.

Will ZANU-PF withstand all these pressures? Will it be able to remain strong and united without access to state resources? On what basis? Who among its leaders will be able to take over from Mugabe, and what power will he be able to wield to keep the party together? Will liberation war-era sentimentality still have a draw for a party that would have been deposed from power for having failed to deliver a better quality of life for the people?

From being a collosus that heavily influenced all sorts of areas of Zimbabwean life from politics to business to being an opposition party will be a transition ZANU-PF will find difficult to do, especially without the ruthless discipline of Mugabe as its boss.

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Electoral ‘massacre’ of ZANU-PF would be undesirable

Posted by CM on April 1, 2008

Let us assume that Mugabe and ZANU-PF realise that the game is up and concede defeat to Tsvangirai and the MDC.

It would be a welcome breath of fresh air for Zimbabwe to have its first post-independence government without Mugabe and ZANU-PF at the helm. But it is not in the country’s interests for the MDC’s win to be the electoral ‘masaccre’ of ZANU-PF that the opposition party’s official Tendai Biti boasted about soon after the end of voting.

I would like ZANU-PF to be a significant minority in parliament, hopefully keeping the MDC in check and avoiding some of the power excesses that intoxicated the outgoing ruling party into inevitable decline. This may be wishful thinking about the political motivations of a party that had been reduced to access to the spoils of power rather than about serving the electorate. But perhaps the humbling experience of being rejected by the voters might convert some ZANU-PF parliamentarians into effective watch dogs over the MDC.

This will be very necessary, as the MDC is likely to soon become a feeding frenzy over perks and privileges. It is a pity that Mugabe would exit the scene at such an advanced age and in disgrace. He would have been brilliant as leader of the opposition, keeping the MDC on its toes and running circles around Tsvangirai in many ways.

Before Tsvangirai and the MDC mutate into power-drunk monster, which will happen within their  first 12 months in power, we need to have a ZANU-PF that is poised to be a strong opposition party, to revive a rude, irreverent independent media, to start rebuilding an independent judiciary and to have various strong, non-partisan citizen political interest groups.

The time to start watching the MDC like a hawk is now, not tomorrow.

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In glee at a possible Mugabe defeat, Britain compromises Tsvangirai

Posted by CM on April 1, 2008

A recurring theme on this blog is the clueless reaction of Britain to “the Zimbabwe crisis.” Much of what I have written about that has been from the angle of smug, subjective, “we know the natives very well” reporting from various British correspondents and “Africa experts” about Zimbabwe’s situation.

British reaction to Zimbabwe is understandably significantly influenced by a visceral antipathy to Robert Mugabe. Mugabe has become a sad caricature of a brutal dictator whom anybody in the world would find difficult to support as leader of their own country. But Mugabe has freely given the British many additional reasons to dislike him. He has made raw attacks on Britain a major focal point of his whole political plank. And he has tried hard to pin the label of British stooges on Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC, a gambit which the sometimes awkward and bumbling opposition party has made easy to do.

In their diplomatic ineptitude in dealing with Zimbabwe, the British have stood helplessly by and with no influence at all in a country where close, if not always positive historical links would have been expected to give them a leading role. Instead Britain has had to simply watch events from a safe distance, reduced to ineffectual stunts like Prime Minister Gordon Brown skipping last December’s Africa-EU summit in Portugal because of Mugabe’s presence.

The British can therefore be excused for wanting to see the back of Mugabe for many more complicated reasons than concern for the welfare of Zimbabweans. But in their eagerness to see Mugabe go, they show how poorly they have understood the sensibilities of “their” natives in the post-colonial era. This is only worsened by the continuing British habit of studying the natives in a paternalistic, vaguely anthropological way through the distortions of the many British “Africa hands” who crawl out of UK websites, papers, NGOs and universities. The British are far more fascinated by what a fellow Briton thinks of Africa than they are interested to really listen to and understand what the Africans have to say about how they see history and the present.

The danger to them of this approach, which danger I am not sure has sunk in even in the wake of “the Zimbabwe crisis,” is to be puzzled by the seeming contradictions of someone like Mugabe. On the one hand he is an African anglophile in a way the British once found safe and reassuring. He was a good native who admired all things British, such as cricket and tea with biscuits at four, and he dressed and spoke in a stiff, vaguely colonial way. He might not have belonged to the Church of England, but the kind of Catholic churchianity that he spouted would have been comforting to the British. Here was a splendid specimen of a good  African, deeply steeped in quaint Britishisms and a good example of the British “civilising” mission in deep, dark, godless Africa!

Well, the love story does not end happily ever after. The mutual admiration and flattery between Britain and Mugabe evaporated long ago. But in terms of the souring of that relationship, the source of the trouble cannot quite simply be reduced to “what happened to that once nice fellow Mugabe?”

I will expound on this theme in future. For now, the barely disguised British excitement at the very real prospect of Mugabe’s electoral defeat is obvious in the over-the-top reporting in UK publications. One-time foreign minister David Owen relates how at independence in 1980 he was part of secret efforts to engineer Joshua Nkomo’s installation as first post-independence prime minister. It is easy now to guess the country would not have plunged to its present depths, but not having seen/known at that time that the momentum was ZANU-PF’s then is a sign of the British cluelessness about “their” natives then, and which continues now that the natives are no longer “theirs.”

In the article Mugabe: From secret Jesuit to grieving father to embittered tyrant, Owen reveals that he only recently understood the hatred Mugabe must have felt for an Ian Smith who refused the jailed Mugabe permission to attend his first and only son’s burial. Owen’s epiphany? A play he saw performed in 2006. Although the play was by a British playwright, for Owen, “It gave a special African insight into what may be the root of Mugabe’s troubles.” Twenty six years after independence negotiations of which he was a part, Owen needed a British playwright to explain to him that Mugabe just might have felt a deep, burning hatred for the ill-treatment he suffered during the many years he was in jail.

“How un-African! Aren’t good Africans like Mandela, becoming more noble and forgiving the longer and more they are mistreated?”

Owen displays a recurring theme in British attitudes towards Africa: a real puzzlement that Africans could be resentful at the stripping of their humanity during their whole experience of colonial oppression. It is to wonder, “but why aren’t they grateful for all the good things we did for them?” The answer to this question I pose here rhetorically is beyond the scope of this blog post, but it might be worth trying to answer some other time. Another theme in Owen’s article is that of the mysterious character of the Africans being deciphered by a fellow Briton/Westerner, in this case the author of the play about Mugabe that suddenly helped Owen to feel he could begin to “understand” Mugabe.

This anthropological approach to the African very much continues in the reports of the various British correspondents. Their interpretation of Africa is given far more authority than the perspectives of the Africans about their own world view. It is only official when it is processed through the thoughts and words of a Western “Africa expert,” whether that “expert” is a journalist, intelligence agent, diplomat, NGO worker or academic.

Another aspect of British paternalism is very evident in regards to the expressed visions of a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe.

In the Daily Telegraph, the paper’s diplomatic editor and resident “Africa expert,” David Blair, boldly lays out How to save Zimbabwe after Mugabe.

It is surely touching to think that Mr. Blair has been devoting his valuable time to thoughts on how to “save” Zimbabwe. His plan? “The first step that must be taken is to stabilise the economy and curb hyperinflation. The Africa department of the International Monetary Fund, led by Abdoulaye Bio-Tchané, will take charge of this effort.”

This will surely be an option on the cards, but IMF intervention is no longer universally considered the positive it once was. It assumes an economic policy orientation that I would hope was not automatically, mindlessly adopted by a post-Mugabe government, but would be considered carefully amongst other ideas about how to stabilise and kick-start Zimbabwe’s economy. The credibility of IMF economic “adjustments” has suffered a serious knock in the last decade or so. This is not to say the IMF is evil or that it will not play an important role in Zimbabwe’s recovery. It is just to suggest that even a country in such dire straits as Zimbabwe needs to be cautious about the standard kind of policy advice that comes attached to IMF rescue packages.

Continues Blair, “With inflation under control and a new currency introduced, Zimbabwe’s new government can look to longer term recovery. Commercial agriculture will be the key. Some white farmers must be allowed to return and Mr Mugabe’s disastrous land ownership laws, which make all agricultural land the property of the state, must be repealed.”

“Some white farmers must be allowed to return” rubs me the wrong way. What I object to is what I intepret as the suggestion that it is the whiteness of the farmers who are allowed to return that will be the answer to reviving commercial agriculture. That to me is quite different from saying conditions that make it possible and attractive to invest in commercial agriculture again must be put in place. The individuals who make the investment could be white or they could be black.

But a “white farming community” such as previously existed will no longer work in Zimbabwe for many reasons. In rebuilding commercial agriculture, it is now more important than ever, and in the whites’ own long term interests, for there to be a strong racially integrated commercial farming sector in which blacks play an important role. The challenges of doing this will be one of the most  daunting for any post-Mugabe government, but it is one of the most important.

If Tsvangirai is about to become president of Zimbabwe, the traditional, cloying kind of paternalism towards Africa is one of the most effective ways that Britain could undermine his presidency. Already saddled with the tag of lackey of the British by a Mugabe whose strongly nationalistic sentiment is shared by many of the Zimbabweans who eagerly voted against him on other grounds, Tsvangirai will need to walk the fine line of re-engaging with Britain without giving the appearance of being the ex-colonialist’s poodle.

It is already clear that he will get little help in this important respect from an over-excited British establishment that would be grateful at his deposing of its nemesis Mugabe, and wanting to lay early “claim” to Tsvangirai. This shallow understanding of African sensibilities serves Britain very poorly.

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