Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

The legal and diplomatic precedents set by the issue of Zimbabwe

Posted by CM on July 19, 2008

Blogger Stephen Ellis of  the “Afrika Studie Centrum” in the Netherlands explains particularly well how some important precedents in international relations could be set by how The Zimbabwe Crisis is handled in the coming months:

Whatever happens in, or to, Zimbabwe over the next few months, it will surely set an important diplomatic and legal precedent.

President Mugabe (as we must still see him) has staked his political claim on the principle of state sovereignty.  He also makes great rhetorical use of the ideology of national liberation, the foundational charter of his government.  Yet a resolution of Zimbabwe’s crisis seems bound to involve international mediation in some shape or form.  It is precisely because President Mugabe’s claim has been stated so forcefully, on behalf of a political party that has often been represented as a model of national liberation in Africa, that the resulting clash of principles will be heard with particular clarity.

The least likely candidates for international mediators are actually the United States and the United Kingdom.  The USA has little leverage over a country that has never been squarely within its sphere of influence, while Britain’s leverage has been neutralized to a considerable extent by Mugabe’s tactical astuteness.  The relative powerlessness of these two powers is in fact a good illustration of the practical limitations that result from the increasingly fossilized appearance of the United Nations Security Council.  Including some of the major emerging powers (India, South Africa) as core members of this club would have enabled the Security Council to have thrashed out an approach to Zimbabwe that would have carried more weight, and Mr Mugabe would have been less able to defy the Security Council with impunity.  The same broadly holds for the Group of Eight, which looks increasingly absurd without China.

Somewhere behind it, the African Union.  Neither has gained much credibility from its handling of the Zimbabwe crisis to date. Yet the African Union charter is actually quite interventionist… An AU mandate for international action to restore some sort of normality to Zimbabwe will further enhance its interventionist record.  In this regard, the AU’s great weakness is not so much a refusal to meddle in the internal affairs of its members but its lack of resources to carry out such a policy

Lurking close to this absence is the possibility of an effective collaboration between the AU, which has legitimacy, and those external powers that can provide resources.  There is much lip-service paid to such a combination, but it has not been very effective to date.

Zimbabwe is an extreme example of the many African states that base their legitimacy on the claim to have liberated their people from colonial rule.  Zimbabwe at least has a robust state apparatus it is the economy that has collapsed, not the state.

There are already quite a few governments that have precious little real control of the instruments of sovereignty, constituting what has been called a ‘quasi-state’.  Zimbabwe’s future may further undermine the real power of such governments.  This need not be viewed as a tragedy: it could be the start of more effective forms of partnership between African powers and their external partners.

I cannot imagine the AU intervening militarily in Zimbabwe, as things stand there now. Ellis makes the point that the AU has actually been quite interventionist, but not once in any situation similar to Zimbabwe’s. That situation may be ugly, with government-sanctioned (or at least government-ignored) militias involved in violence and killings against supporters of the MDC party. But not even the chilling accounts of the opposition party and the graphic images from Zimbabwe suggest the situation has reached levels that could yet justify armed intervention by any quarter.

This could well change, but in the short term the change in the political environment is actually towards more calm as Mugabe’s government perceives itself to be less threatened and feels more secure, and as talks between ZANU-PF and the MDC take place in South Africa.

But still, Ellis is very astute in his reading of the situation, such as his pointing out the relative powerlessness of Britain and the US to influence things in Zimbabwe. The UN sanctions resolution they sponsored at the UN and its veto by China and Russia is just one sign of that lack of their lack of influence on and in Zimbabwe.

Ellis did not say, but perhaps the fervent but dubious efforts of Britain and the US to portray the mess there as a threat to international security is partly to make sure that a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe does return to their “sphere of influence.” We saw how useful this was for them during the recent Kenyan upheavals that not only threatened to tear that country apart, but also threatened the considerable economic, geopolitical and military interests of Britain and the US. They quickly weighed in very heavily with various effective threats to make the opposing political parties sit down and form a unity government.  Kenya can be said to have been “saved” at least partially by these interventions, but so were the British and American interests there.

The material interests of the UK and the US are not nearly as great in Zimbabwe as in Kenya, but certainly the potential for them to be is clear, as would be the symbolic importance of the country having a government that was more amenable to diplomatic and economic pressure than Mugabe’s has proven to be so far for Britain and the US.

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