Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

From afar, irresponsible calls for military intervention in Zimbabwe

Posted by CM on July 20, 2008

Everybody in the world has become a Zimbabwe ‘expert’ with strong feelings about events there, and many of those experts are absolutely certain they have ‘the solution’ to what ails the troubled country.

It is a good thing that there is such worldwide concern for the people of Zimbabwe. But in becoming the world’s latest pet project, Zimbabwe also has to suffer the heated attentions of the not so well informed who nevertheless want to be seen to be taking a stand on the fashionable issue of the moment. A result if this is that in keeping up with the mountains of Zimbabwe-focused news and perspectives that pour out every day, one must sift through a lot of dubious material to find the few  articles that offer anything new, helpful or insightful about the situation.

It may take force in Zimbabwe by Joseph Quesnel, writing in the Winnipeg Sun, is an example of the genre of the many self-righteous writers who have strong opinions but little understanding of the situation.

Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe…wants us to believe that human rights violations, politically-motivated beatings and killings, and illegitimate elections are none of the West’s business. This week, he made headlines by declaring that UN sanctions will result in civil war. No, Mr. Mugabe, your starvation policies and thuggish hold on power will achieve that, not UN actions.

Thankfully, many residents of Zimbabwe don’t see it that way, judging by the protests and the strength of political support for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. They, like us, are realizing how connected we all are. We can see their suffering through media broadcasts and realize that human rights are not limited by borders. In this case, this does not necessarily mean we should send an army to “liberate” Zimbabwe or send special force units to assassinate Mugabe. It does, however, necessitate continuing a strong, united response and possible military assistance to opposition forces. After all, if force is what is keeping this thug in place, it will take force to remove him.

The writer seems like he has his heart in the right place and is motivated by a concern for the violence and suffering in Zimbabwe that has been broadcast around the world. But his good intentions do not change the fact that “military assistance to opposition forces” is not what Zimbabwe needs now!

It could very well be that if Mugabe continues to close off all doors to even mild dissent, he may force an increasing number of opposition hotheads to conclude that trying to take on the ruling authority by force is the only option open to them. I hope that we haven’t reached that stage yet, because that would surely be a certain path to the destruction of the country. Mugabe would welcome the slightest excuse to clamp down hard militarily on the opposition once and for all with the ruthlessness for which he has become famed, and which he seems to relish.

I can understand how somebody writing from Winnipeg, Canada might not know this, but Rhodesia and its successor Zimbabwe have been in a state of almost continuous conflict for more than a hundred years now. Different groups have been in conflict against each other in that time and before, and the intensity of the conflicts have waxed and waned. The memories of a bloody, vicious liberation struggle in the 1970s and the Gukurahundi pogrom in the early 1980s still run very deep in the society. There has never been any serious effort to find even merely symbolic national healing over all these conflicts. The many unhealed wounds and resentments going back over decades and centuries lurk behind many aspects of the present Zimbabwe Crisis in ways the Canadian writer could not be expected to know.

The Zimbabwean political impasse cannot be suddenly resolved by some sort of hoped-for surgical military strike. It is not quite as simple as a small military clique oppressing a vast unarmed majority.

Crooked as the recent election was, if its figures of a slight majority for opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC are how we are to gauge the level of their support, we must deal with the reality that those figures also show an astonishing lingering level of support for Mugabe and ZANU-PF, even if that support were in reality much less than the 40-50% suggested by the official figures.

If we accept these figures as the basis for gauging the relative support of the two sides, then there is an almost even split amongst Zimbabweans about which vision for their country they want. Effectively encouraging civil war in such a situation, which is effectively what Quesnel does with his suggestion of military support, is the height of irresponsibility.

Outsiders would be far more helpful by calling for the de-militarisation of the Zimbabwean impasse, not grandstanding by recklessly urging more of what Zimbabweans have suffered far too much of in their recent history.

An even more bombastic call to arms was West must intervene to liberate Zimbabwe by one Tony Allwright in an article in the Irish Times. Allwright starts off ‘allwrong’ by giving a brief, distorted, simplistic and caricatured recent history of Zimbabwe to show what a nasty fellow Mugabe has always been.

In Allwright’s Zimbabwe view, the Ndebele tribe (which, descended from proud Zulus, historically regarded Shonas solely as a source of slaves, women and cattle) experienced 20,000 deaths when Mugabe, a Shona, sent in his personal, North Korean-trained military hit squad to perpetrate widespread massacres in Matabeland, stronghold of his political opponent Joshua Nkomo.

At this point it is tempting to simply dismiss Allwright as a flake for his broad brushes, but one must remember that there are thousands who would have read his opinion piece and who would simply not know enough about the situation to tell whether it was authoritative or fair, and who would be inclined to believe the account hook, line and sinker.

I say the word “flake” to describe him partly because of the condescending, almost comical way Allwright uses the old colonial divide and rule tactic of ‘noble Zulu-derived Ndebele’ versus ‘not-so-noble Shona.’ And he writes about Ndebele raids on Shona territory for slaves, women and cattle as if in admiration of them.

The problem is that once you go down that slippery slope, those on the opposite side of the lunatic fringe that argues like this might say Mugabe’s army’s violence against the Ndebele was sort of a historical tit-for-tat. In the case of that absurd contention, on what basis would a person like Allwright say that more recent violence was any less “noble” than the earlier raids for “slaves, women and cattle?”

To take the argument further, would Allwright be willing to excuse Mugabe’s  permission of violence against white farmers as justifiable tit-for-tat for the (presumably) ‘noble’ violence by the early white settlers against the natives, whether the noble Ndebele or the not-so-noble Shona? In that case the violence and crooked dispossession was not that different from the ones for slaves, women and cattle Allwright seems to find admirable about the Ndebele raids on the Shona, except that the white raiders also wanted minerals, land; basically complete conquest, which they indeed achieved for a brief while. It’s just a hunch, but I suspect that in this case Allwright would not accept this type of division between noble and not so noble violence!

The Ndebele are no less or more noble than the Shona, just like the whites are no less or more noble than the blacks. But from very early on in his article, in going so over-the-top in trying to illustrate what a bad guy he considers Mugabe to be, Allwright has already spoiled his own credibility by getting bogged down in a classic ‘good native-bad native’ comparison. One cannot avoid the feeling that his passion about Zimbabwe is due to his fighting other ‘wars’ than those he mentions in his article! I say so because its suggestion of a tone of condescension about the Shona groups suggests that his ‘problem’ is not just with Mugabe, and that his concern may not be for the general welfare of Zimbabweans, of whom Shonas compose 80%.

So after just his first few paragraphs I am already deeply suspicious of and alienated by Allwright. I will not even bother to go into the issue of how widespread inter-marriage (long after the slaves-women-cattle raids!) between Shona and Ndebele have made largely redundant the fossilised colonial thinking about the real or imaginary differences between them.

Words and mild slaps have been going on for years. If they were ever going to work, they would have done so by now, at least to some extent, but they haven’t.

At the first sight of professional soldiery, you can be sure the Zimbabwe army and police, who have no idea how to deal with anyone who isn’t an unarmed civilian, will discard their weapons and uniforms and simply melt away, Having handed the administration to Morgan Tsvangirai, whom no one but the Mugabe clique doubts won last March’s election, the invading force should then rapidly withdraw.

In Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, words kill, because by achieving nothing, they permit and encourage him to continue his murderous rampage. Thus those who forswear military action should just remain silent, for they are, however unwittingly, on the side of Robert Mugabe. I am not.

It is interesting that Allwright’s attitude to those who see things differently from him is that they “should just remain silent.” It strikes me that this is exactly Mugabe’s attitude, when he says those who oppose him are automatically, necessarily lackeys of “the enemy” and should be silenced! Allwright and Mugabe appear to have more in common than they do apart, including a belief in and love for military force (as long as it is applied by sides they find admirable, of course!)

Many of the earlier arguments against military “assistance” to the opposition apply against the even more alarming idea of Zimbabwe being directly militarily “saved” by Western powers. The shrillest and most militant of those countries in advocating strong action of one type or another against Mugabe not so long ago happily backed Ian Smith’s army against the same population we are told to believe they are now so concerned about they should militarily intervene on behalf of!

What could account for the curious radical change in the concern for the natives in just 30 years? Is it really because of concern for the hardships Zimbabweans are currently going, or is there another “elephant in the room” that accounts for the shrill, unprecedented, condescending ranting of people like Tony Allwright?

I certainly have no trouble understanding that British hate for Mugabe runs especially deep for a number of obvious reasons. But those reasons are quite different from why most Zimbabweans want Mugabe to go. I do not for one moment buy the notion that Allwright urges an invasion of Zimbabwe because he is so passionately concerned about the deprivation of its citizens’ rights. Allwright admits as much by reducing the ‘solution’ to Zimbabwe’s ‘problem’ to the assassination of Mugabe. What I read into this, in conjuction with the rest of his rant, is that he would not at all be concerned about whatever mess was left behind an attempted or actual invasion as long as Mugabe was eliminated and Tsvangirai was put in his place. Zimbabwe’s problems are far deeper and more complicated than this. Perhaps Allwright should take his own advice and “just remain silent” or apply his bombastic wisdom elsewhere.

The idea of a Western military force “handing” the administration to Morgan Tsvangirai would immediately neutralise the legitimacy of his election margin. It would turn against him the many Zimbabweans who support him as an elected alternative to Mugabe, but whose experience of Western political involvement in Zimbabwe is so negative that his assuming office as a military project of a West that has not generally been friendly to Africa would open up vast new fractures.

One of the worst parts of Allwrights analysis of the purported magic of installing Tsvangirai by Western military means is to ignore the aftermath. Suppose the fairy tale went as Allwright scripts it: walk-over invasion of Harare, Mugabe is taken out, installation of Tsvangirai, conquering Western heroes jauntily walk out in a blaze of glory. Is the idea that the country would then live happily ever after? Can Allwright be that naive, or can we deduce that he would not worry too much about that chapter as long as the Mugabe the British hate with such blinding passion was no longer on the scene?

This simplistic nonsense, which is so absurd it is not possible to even credit it with being well-intentioned, ignores the many nuances of the Zimbabwean impasse to only focus on the surface things that seem clear cut.

Morgan Tsvangirai probably enjoys the electoral support of significant majority of Zimbabweans. But this is not the same as saying the intervention of his Western sympathisers is welcome. Robert Mugabe is unpopular and has over-stayed, but many who want him to go also agree with his fierce nationalistic sentiment of African empowerment in all sectors of the economy.

The armed forces are not simply composed of paid mercenaries. There are thousands of its members who took part in the liberation war for reasons of deep conviction. It is naive in the extreme to believe that the spirit for self-determination that in the 1970s saw thousands of young people cross over into Mozambique to join the guerrillas fighting Ian Smith’s army, resulting in more than 30,000 civilian deaths, would just evaporate into thin air in relief at the Western installation of a ruler. If Tsvangirai is popular now, the way of his assuming an office he probably won fairly and squarely that is suggested by Allwright would not be the end of his and the country’s troubles, but the beginning of far worse ones than we are experiencing now. Western military intervention as suggested by Allwright would not be a confirmation of Tsvangirai’s electoral “legitimacy,” but the most effective way to undermine it.

People of goodwill across the world must continue to ask in what ways they can help Zimbabwe solve its problems. But emotional reactions spurred by the deeply buried ideological, historical and racial feelings that Mugabe and Zimbabwe engender in disparate groups across the world do not at all help the situation, and may well make it much worse. With ‘friends’ like Tony Allwright, Zimbabwe doesn’t need any more enemies.

2 Responses to “From afar, irresponsible calls for military intervention in Zimbabwe”

  1. atawal said

    Hi Chido, Keep up the good work! Your posts are well thought out and I find them refreshing in these days in which there is a sea of biased comment disguised as balanced news on Zimbabwe. I am just as nauseated by Mugabe’s thuggery as I am by the ineptitude of the MDC and the hypocrisy of the West. Maybe the MDC is a lesser evil than ZANU-PF but we have to maintain a fair minded approach and so far, you are the only commentator I have read who has managed that.

    Rambai makashinga, baba!

  2. […] – bookmarked by 6 members originally found by TechFacilitator on 2008-12-15 From afar, irresponsible calls for military intervention in Zimbabwe […]

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