Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Archive for August, 2008

Heckling scene at Parliament strengthens Mugabe’s ‘democratic’ credentials

Posted by CM on August 27, 2008

Mugabe’s heckling by MDC MPs during his opening speech at Parliament yesterday has got some people beside themselves with excitement.

All the various publications that carried it essentially recycled the same story, but each trying to out-compete all the others with the superlatives used.

“Howls of derision echo through Zim Parliament” screamed the Mail and Guardian.

“Robert Mugabe humiliated as Zimbabwe parliament opens,” joyfully cried the UK Daily Telegraph. Opinionist-masquerading-as-journalist Peta Thornycroft was so delighted she guessed, ‘This was probably the first time that Mr Mugabe, who is shielded from public criticism, has ever faced an openly hostile audience.’

Many other reports on the heckling wondered if it, together with the MDC’s majority and the first-ever election of an opposition MP as Speaker, heralded a fundamental shift in Zimbabwe’s power relations.

That could very well be the case, and would be true in a ‘normal’ democracy, but this cannot at all be taken for granted in Zimbabwe. Mugabe has been counted out countless times before and has always managed to come back for another fight; stronger, more determined, uncompromising and ruthless.

As soon as the opening was held,  parliament went on recess until October, delaying the answers to exactly what the changes will mean to the conduct of parliamentary business, and whether any of those changes will filter down to making any difference to “the man on the street.”

I have yet to see any photos of Mugabe’s reaction during the heckling when he was delivering his speech. It would be entirely natural for him to be unsettled at such heckling, but I would be surprised if he really took it hard, as if he were surprised that a significant proportion of Zimbabweans cannot stand him. Now that he seems well on his way to achieving his overall aim of staying on in power for five more years, I suspect he will simply adjust to the heckling on the very few occasions on which he has to address parliament. As long as he remains president, I believe tough old Mugabe will simply get used to taking occasional heckling, at what has mostly been a window-dressing, ceremonial parliament anyway, as the small price he must pay for holding on to power.

The police and the whole Mugabe authority seemed really petty to chase down and arrest several MDC parliamentarians for one or another ‘offence’ just before and and after the session of parliament. MDC MPs are not necessarily any more paragons of virtue than the rest of us, so it would not be surprising if a few did have police ‘cases to answer.’ But the manner and timing of their questioning and/or arrests was really poor, even by the low standards of the Mugabe regime.

But interestingly, if Mugabe can prevent his goons from their typical over-zealousness, he could turn the MDC presence in parliament, heckling and all, to his favour. It is unprecedented for an African president to ‘accept’ the ‘humiliation’ of being heckled like he was. He did not call out the army and air force to bomb the opposition benches as might be expected of a man who has been painted as the world’s most blood-thirsty ogre. Instead he ploughed through the heckling to finish his speech.

As long as he retains the biggest price of being the supreme ruler, he could actually say to the world: ‘You see, we have a fully functioning democracy in Zimbabwe, in which I can be heckled in parliament in a way that in many other countries would result in many deaths.’

It is true that many things will be different with the several changes Mugabe has reluctantly had to accept. But the sly old fox is far from finished. For now he still retains all the instruments of real power, regardless of how much singing and hurling of insults opposition MPs engage in during his speeches.

Let’s wait and see what develops in the coming weeks and months.

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The significance, or otherwise, of an MDC parliamentary Speaker

Posted by CM on August 27, 2008

So the MDC’s Tsvangirai faction has succeeded in using its parliamentary majority to elect Zimbabwe’s first non-ZANU PF Speaker.

I have never read so many articles within the space of a few hours telling me how ‘powerful’ the Speaker’s position is in the political scheme of things in Zimbabwe.

Unprecedented and historic, yes. But is it quite the earthquake that many observers have predicted (or hoped for)?

I think it’s way too early to say. There was the same excitement when the MDC won an unprecedented 57 seats in the parliamentary election of 2000, scaring the wits out of Mugabe. ZANU-PF might have still had a majority, but many dared hope that the coming into Parliament of so many opposition legislators would do wonders for debate and democracy.

Instead, Mugabe simply dug into his old bag of tricks and came up with a solution to this mild inconvenience. He simply made sure that Parliament was more peripheral than ever to the real exercise of power. It continued to exist in name but was simply made largely irrelevant.

Oh, sure, on the seemingly increasingly infrequent times in which it was in session, MDC MPs would occasionally be able to do a little bit of heckling and ask some embarrassing questions (usually ignored or deflected). Some MDC MPs served on various committees with their ZANU-PF counter parts for the first time. But other than that, nothing much changed for the ordinary Zimbabwean.

Are things going to be any different now that the MDC has a slight majority and a Speaker from within its ranks?  (Yawn, scratch) Let’s wait and see but I woudn’t bet on it. I don’t believe the wily Mugabe is out of tricks yet.

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Levy Mwanawasa, R.I.P.

Posted by CM on August 20, 2008

By the low standards of rulership we have unfortunately had to get accustomed to in Africa, Zambia’s just-deceased president Levy Mwanawasa was a cut above the norm.

Whatever his faults, he seemed a genuine ‘man of the people’ in a way we no longer even expect anymore. He was down to earth, he spoke plainly, one could imagine sharing a drink and jokes with him in a way it is difficult to do with most of the continent’s stiff, self-important despots.

Morgan Tsvangirai was quick to do the right thing and issue a statement of condolence immediately after news of Mwanawasa’s death. There is a level on which this is not surprising given the late president’s expressed sympathy for how Zimbabwe’s opposition has been abused by Mugabe, and Mwanawasa’s abortive attempts to help to mediate the political impasse in his neighbouring country, incurring Mugabe’s wrath in the process. Mwanawasa’s description of Zimbabwe as “a sinking ship” would not have endeared him to Mugabe, and there were the usual hints of his (Mwanawasa) being in the employ of a Western conspiracy against the ‘revolution’ in Zimbabwe.

Despite what must have been bad blood between Mugabe and Mwanawasa, it is still shocking that Zimbabwe’s despot has not had the good grace to personally express his condolences to the people of Zambia on Mwanawasa’s death. It is not good enough for the first and so far  (more than 24 hours after the announcement of the death) only statement from the Zimbabwean government to be one by the minister of information somewhat unconvincingly calling it, “a real tragedy for the entire continent.’ Surely such a sentiment needed to come from the head of state, no matter how disputed Mugabe’s holding of that title currently is.

Sikhanyiso Ndlovu’s statement that, “Mugabe will issue a statement later Tuesday after a weekly cabinet meeting” only worsened the impression of callous indifference by Zimbabwe’s despot at the passing of a colleague who rightly was alarmed at the events in his neighbour to the south. It gave the impression of a Mugabe who was ‘too busy’ to immediately say something about the death, which is absurd. To add to the boorishness of the behaviour, no such statement was forthcoming “later Tuesday” from Mugabe

Mugabe probably did not have warm feelings towards Mwanawasa. Indeed, there was not even a perfunctory statement from him wishing the ailing Mwanawasa a speedy recovery after his recent stroke in Egypt. So perhaps it is entirely consistent of Mugabe to not now cry crocodile tears for a man he did not forgive for daring to criticise him, no matter how gently and obliquely. But Mugabe’s behaviour shows his smallness, his pettiness. It would have cost him nothing to say something, and would have shown him to be capable of rising above his personal feelings on the occasion of the death of a neighbouring head of state. More shame on Mugabe, although he seems incapable of feeling any.

African  presidents have often justifiably been accused of corrupting the essence of democracy in various ways. It is therefore ironic when those who most frequently point this finger then go on to write, “Mwanawasa did not groom a successor.” In a democracy individuals should come and go without the system collapsing. No matter how good somebody is, when he or she goes, no matter how unexpectedly, the laid down process of succession should be able to produce a successor from among the political ranks.

That is what is going to happen in Zambia as various politicians fight it out for the top job in the elelction to be held in the next 90 days, as is stipulated by the country’s constitution in the event of a sudden vacancy of the office of president such as has just happened. And that is how it should be.

Amongst MWanawasa’s achievements are being cited his fight against corruption, including calling his mentor and predecessor Frederick Chiluba to account fr his thieving ways in a manner that is quite unprecedented. He got debt relief which allowed Zambia to use more of itsforex earnings on “development” than on paying off debts. He managed to keep good relations with both the West and China at a time when some Westerners alarmed at the loss of influence over “their” Africans seem to suggest Africa must choose one ‘side’ or the other.

But as some astute African observers have pointed out, for some in the West, and particularly Britain, all of Mwanawasa’s achievements on behalf of his own country pale in comparison to his role as the good African who criticised the bad African Mugabe!

That obsession with categorising Africans on the basis of such crude boxes not only cheapens Mwanawasa’s legacy, it is an attitude that also illustrates why despite the aid and attention lately lavished on Africa by the West, much of Africa is so disillusioned by the whole tone of its relationship with that West. In Africa, the West seems to have very little idea how to win friends and influence people. Perhaps this is partly why they are being beaten at their own game by the Chinese.

Mwanawasa represented the beginnings of southern Africa’s move away from being beholden to liberation-era ‘founding fathers,’ as if we were slaves who owed something to new masters.

Levy Mwanawasa, may you rest in peace.

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The pitfalls of aid that is designed to weaken and control a nation

Posted by CM on August 10, 2008

EU representative to Zimbabwe Xavier Marchal was the guest of honour at the recently held annual congress of the Commercial Farmers Union, the representative body of the majority of Zimbabwe‘s white farmers.

In his speech he talked about the dire food situation in Zimbabwe.


Agriculture has collapsed. This year’s harvest of the key crops has been catastrophic. Rural communities have faced extreme political violence, and their assets destroyed. Commercial farmers have been brutalised, their farms grabbed for the wrong reasons. Zimbabwe is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, with extremely poor prospects for the next agricultural season.

Marchal goes on to mention how much money the EU has provided in humanitarian assistance in the last several years of economic decline, and of the commitment to provide more in the next several months of expected widespread hunger.

He then repeatedly mentions how much more assistance could be forthcoming, ”When and if normality and legitimacy are re-established in Zimbabwe as a result of a fair political Agreement, endorsed by the European Union.”

Just by that simple, innocent-sounding phrase, Marchal shows the great pitfalls Zimbabwe faces as its politicians sit down to try to work a way out of the deep hole the country is in.

I do not question that the assistance the EU has provided and is prepared to continue to give and even increase is out of genuine humanitarian concern. But the cleverly couched hint of a bribe and a threat in Marchal’s message is also unmistakable. It is a clear-cut testament to what a double-edged sword Africa’s deep donor dependency has become for the continent.

What I read in Marchal’s statement is ‘your country’s agriculture is on its knees and you need the help we are willing to provide…if you come up with a political agreement which is acceptable to us.’ In this Marchal was merely re-iterating what other EU and Western officials have said.

The problem is that it seems quite clear that these countries are giving themselves the right to decide what they believe is in Zimbabweans best interests in the current negotiations. A political agreement could well include compromises that no one would be completely happy with, but that is what coming to the negotiating table to resolve an intractable problem may take.

If the MDC reluctantly accepts an agreement in which Mugabe remains president, this would be the worst outcome for the EU, as they have made quite clear. Many Zimbabweans would also be dismayed at this. But if, just if, all accepted this as the price of getting Zimbabwe to halt its slide, on what basis would the EU have to not accept this outcome?

The EU’s heavy-handed, racist stance on this issue should make us think anew about the very high cost of donor-dependency, whether it is humanitarian, well-meaning or not. This is a reminder of how even when aid is well-intentioned, it is also inevitably an instrument of control.

Zimbabwe will need all the help it can get to recover. Yet the kind of aid dangled by the likes of Marchal is assistance that seeks to weaken and control us in the long-term, even as it assuages pain in the short term.

Unfortunately, I have zero confidence in the ability of a possible MDC government to manoeuvre between getting assistance and remaining ‘sovereign.’ The MDC is so deeply in the pockets of the Western countries that Zimbabwe would revert to the model of client state fed with aid in exchange for never again entertaining ‘Mugabe-like’ notions of trying to be in charge of its own destiny.

This is part of why I do not share the excitement of many others about the outcome of the on-going talks. Zimbabwe has no prospects of getting out of its economic hole when powerful Western countries are so determined to close off all doors to a Mugabe government, quite apart from the man’s cruel despotism. Yet there are many indications that the Tsvangirai government that would make those Western countries happy and eager to prop him up would be on the model of the spineless, pliable donor-dependent governments we see all across Africa.

The destruction of so many systems in Zimbabwe has had catastrophic effects. But that actually gives a new government the opportunity to start afresh with some new ideas to problem-solving, the like of which we have seen too little of in Africa. The many needs may seem to indicate the necessity of getting any help from anywhere. But instead of reacting in a panicky, knee-jerk ‘anything you say baas’ way to aid dangled in patronising, ultimately dis-empowering ways, this should be the time to think hard about how to avoid the seductive aid traps that have helped Africa in short term ways but also failed it in the long term, leaving it weaker and more compromised than ever before.

Radio VOP

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MDC agriculture and lands position paper avoids the tough issues

Posted by CM on August 10, 2008

What the MDC refers to as its policy document on lands and agrarian reform is remarkable for how little it says about one of the most crucial issues on which its performance would be judged if it gets into power.

The paper promises to tell the reader ‘how we will attend to the issue’ but really does nothing of the kind. The MDC’s positions on many of the day to day agricultural issues are hard to fault, and are not different from what any other government anywhere in the world would be expected to do. But this is precisely why the document is underwhelming. The centrality of the issue of land to the problems in Zimbabwe particularly require the MDC to boldly and clearly show how its stance is different from that of ZANU-PF.

The MDC says it would “rationalise” a land reform process that was “chaotic and outside the rule of law.” But “there will be no return to the pre-2000 status nor will the present regime of wastage, corruption, under utilization and multi-ownership be preserved.”

This is perhaps the only bold and clear-cut statement in the whole document. Over the years the MDC has been pilloried by ZANU-PF over its wishy-washiness in regards to what it would do about the controversial land takeovers that have taken place since 2000. Morgan Tsvangirai and his party have never been able to live down the image of them being partly representative of the hopes of white farmers to reclaim their farms. The image of white farmers excitedly surrounding Tsvangirai in the early days of the party’s formation to offer him financial support backfired very badly for him. It gave ZANU-PF plenty of propaganda ammunition against Tsvangirai and lost him credibility in much of the black world that to this day he struggling to regain.

The situation was not helped by confusing statements from party officials about their position on farms expropriated from white farms. “Outside the rule of law” seemed to reduce the issue to ‘lets see who has title deeds’ but the complexity of the land issue in Zimbabwe means it is far more than merely a legal matter. It is that in part, but it also involves un-avoidable issues of race, history, economics, politics, emotion and many others, which is why it is so intractable.

The fact of the matter is that no matter how ‘chaotic and outside the rule of law’ the ZANU-PF driven expropriations were, and regardless of the so far disastrous results, the idea of them retains much support amongst Zimbabweans across the many divides in the country. A wholesale reversal of them is not politically tenable, and the MDC statement is simply a reflection of how the party has come to accept this reality.

The MDC says it will seek to set up a commission to deal with land issues, and that this proposed statutory body would have the task of dealing with the nuts and bolts of what exactly to do about the many vexing issues. According to the position paper, this commission would, amongst other things, carry out a land audit to determine who has what land and what is being done with it. It would “ implement and coordinate a rational and participatory all inclusive and well planned resettlement programme,” whatever that means. It would also set out allowable sizes of land holdings and find ways to discourage multiple farm ownership.

All this is general enough that it cannot be said to constitute policy. These are all things that would need to be done in one form or another by any government, including eventually by ZANU-PF itself if it continues to rule. Apart from telling us they will not try to go back to the pre-2000 pattern of land holdings, the MDC position is to essentially say “the land commission will look at things after we get into power.”

It may be politically wise of the MDC to not allow itself to be pinned down to specifics on a complicated issue, but the lack of clear signs of fundamentally new thinking about land and agriculture is not an encouraging sign.

In typical MDC-speak, the party says it would ‘internationalise’ the issue of how to compensate farmers whose land has been expropriated since 2000. No doubt Britain, for one, would now be willing to be part of funding the pay-off of white farmers. This would be for ‘kith and kin’ reasons, as a reward to an MDC government for deposing a Robert Mugabe the British have come to hate with a passion, and to be seen as part of the solution to the resolution of this long-standing problems, rather than as part of the problem, as Mugabe has repeatedly, stridently argued. The EU and others may have their own reasons for wanting to contribute to a compensation fund under an MDC government.

But is expressing a commitment to compensation based on external funding not potentially problematic? The party reasonably argues that ‘the Zimbabwean economy does not have the capacity to offer just and equitable compensation while at the same time driving the economy forward.’ What happens if  ‘internationalising’ compensation does not yield the required funds? There could be many reasons for this: donor fatigue or unhappiness over one thing or another about the terms of the compensation, or the way forward politically or economically. These are after all parts of the reasons for why previous plans to raise money to buy the white farmers out did not materialise.

The ZANU-PF government’s stance has been that it would pay compensation whose value it determined, and based only on ‘improvements to the land, rather than including the value of the land as well, because of the history of colonial plunder. The white farmers who purchased their land rather than received or inherited it as part of the process of colonial subjugation of the Africans obviously take a dim view of this.

Yet even if the ZANU-PF position was one extreme that cannot meet the demand of ‘just and equitable compensation,’ what is the thinking that will go into meeting that requirement of justice and equity? The MDC could have used the opportunity presented by setting out its basic philosophy in regards to this, even if the details are to be worked out later.

That the white farmers lost money, assets, livelihoods is not in doubt. But if one looks at violent dispossession in its historical context in the country, it is hardly a new phenomenon. Previous violent dispossessions by colonial authorities against the Africans were done according to the ‘rule of law’ of the time, but it was stacked against the Africans and in favour of the white settlers. This happened within the lifetimes of people still living today, so it can hardly be considered as ancient history which can simply be written off. ‘Lawful’ and ‘just’ are not necessarily one and the same thing, which is why the innocent-sounding ‘rule of law’ can be a nebulous, loaded term.

Is the recent dispossession of the white farmers more horrific than previous one of the natives? If so, why and how? Is the fact that the white farmers had paper title deeds in a way that Africans did not when their land and cattle were grabbed from them the salient issue? If Africans have been expected to let colonial bygones be bygones, why would it be too much to ask the white farmers to accept the injustice of their loss in a similar light? Why is the native expected to live with his or her wounds of colonial dispossession as the price of moving forward and yet the white farmers of today are not?

The MDC is probably too beholden to western interests to be expected to broach this subject this way, but that is a shame. It should be an entirely legitimate part of the discussion over compensation. Of course there are many other things to consider than just the wounded feelings, lost property and investments of the white farmers. One of those would be the negative message that would be sent to potential investors in not compensating the farmers for their lost investments. But if the idea to scrap or to limit compensation were considered, it could be sold as part of a process of wiping a very messy, complicated slate clean in order to start another more just phase of the country’s development. Qualifying what ‘just and equitable’ compensation means in this case need not be taken to mean that in future expropriations would become routine, the way they have been for a good part of the nation’s recent history, although an ahistorical, jaundiced Western media often gives the impression that they were only began eight years ago by the ‘evil’ Mugabe against the innocent, hard working Christian white farmers.

Having discussions like this, even if they ended up with conventional ‘rule of law’-based compensation of the white farmers, rather than some resolution which looks at the issue in less conventional, more historically holistic terms, would show that the MDC was committed to dealing with the issue of agrarian reform from the roots, rather than from just the apparent surface.

The MDC document has its share of absolute twaddle. A prize gem is ‘the ultimate economic liberation of Zimbabwe will only occur after the destruction of the dual enclave economy and the transition of our country into a modern industrial State.’ Apparently what this means is a glorious, miraculous process of renewal ‘to free the country from direct reliance on land and agriculture but an (sic) industry and technology and software.’

The paper in some parts reads like a high school essay more than a serious work by a party hoping to run the affairs of a country. The sweeping, hopeful statement of how the MDC will lead Zimbabwe into being a technological powerhouse no longer dependent on agriculture directly is not backed up with any detail whatsoever about how this will be accomplished and it seemed un-necessary in a paper purportedly outlining the party’s agricultural policy. It is the kind of grand statement whose hopefulness one cannot disagree with but in the current context makes the MDC appear like a typical over-promising political party rather than one that has seriously engaged with how to address the pressing issues of today. Just reviving commercial agriculture would keep the MDC busy long enough that mentioning a hoped for future technology-based Zimbabwe in an agriculture position paper today does not make the MDC appear like a far-thinking party, but one throwing around platitudes in place of specifics about the great issues of the day, of which land and agriculture are two.

The MDC briefly lectures about the distinction between land reform and agrarian reform before promising us that under the latter, the party would ‘and industrialize the rural areas to make them productive and wealth generating.’ Assuming that it is a given that this would be a desirable thing to do, how would the party take us to this industrial promised land? No specifics are again, so I suppose this is another rabbit the land commission will be expected to pull out of its magic hat. These sweeping sorts of statements of the wonderful great things you would do as a ruling party when you clearly have not thought them through in any detail should be avoided.

The come a raft of promises to do the kinds of things that any government should do. The MDC mentions support for agricultural training and research institutions, provision of inputs and so on. They would all be good things to do, but probably beyond the capacity of any government to carry the full responsibility for. This has been the experience of most countries, and the MDC would have to make an above average commitment to agriculture to merely do most of what it promises in its paper.

In seemingly promising everything to everybody, the MDC comes off like any other political party. This is of course what it is, but even that is not good enough at a time when the depth and complexity of Zimbabwe’s problems requires unusual commitment and thinking power to solve. Getting Zimbabwe out of its current doldrums will require the kind of fresh, out-of-the-box thinking which the MDC’s policy paper on land and agriculture does not suggest the party has embarked on.

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Rat meat was sign of crisis in Zimbabwe, dog meat in Uganda isn’t

Posted by CM on August 5, 2008

Disgraced former CNN journalist, the bombastic Jeff Koinange, caused an uproar amongst Zimbabweans worldwide when he reported in December 2006 that because of The Zimbabwe Crisis, they were resorting to eating rat meat instead of preferred beef or chicken.

There was a torrent of indignant protest. Many denied that this is a normal or widespread practice, and it was pointed out that in Zimbabwe eating rat meat would have a strong cultural taboo attached to it. Some conceded that mice, not rats, were a delicacy in some local communities and that this was no different from other ‘strange’ culinary habits, such as the French love of snails or the proclivity for dog or snake meat in parts of Asia. This was all lost in the heat of the acrimony, however, the implication being the sensitive Zimbabweans were simply in denial about the level of deprivation in their country.

In any case, the attempt to differentiate makonzo, rats, from the more benignly-considered mbeva, mice, would probably not have impressed CNN. The essential point of the article was that the oppressed Zimbabweans had been so reduced in material status by Mugabe, The Latest Great Western Satan, that they had to scrounge around for rodents for meat protein, whether that was mouse or rat.

Many Zimbabweans considered the story as typical of the distortions to be expected of Western media such as the banned-from-Zimbabwe-CNN. Some speculated that the story was the US network’s way of getting back at the Mugabe government in particular, and the country in general, in retaliation for its banning.

The BBC has a story about the furore in Uganda over two men who were caught selling dog meat as goat flesh. The article says,

Dog meat is not eaten in Uganda and the subject has dominated radio discussion programmes.

Hundreds of people went to the police station where the suspects were being held to express their anger, Uganda’s state-run New Vision paper reports.

One of the suspects told the paper he had not intended to sell the meat. “This is my home dog which I have been rearing. I killed it on demand of my spirits who directed me to offer its body parts to them,” he was quoted as saying.

The men were caught with the carcass of the dog, which had had its head and tail cut off.

It is possible that the Ugandan men (or the ‘spirits’ one of them alleges ordered the dog meat) in question here simply preferred dog-meat to more conventional types. Maybe eating the dog was a fall-back position to his not being able to afford more conventional meats. Maybe a lot of different things, all of which could have also applied to the Zimbabwean Koinange found frying rodent meat, which the then CNN correspondent portrayed as a now common practice that was a sign of the economic times in Zimbabwe.

The point? The remarkable spin a lot of the ‘international media’ puts on everyday events in Zimbabwe whose explanation is not necessarily any different from similar events in any other part of the world.

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