Cholera crisis changes political dynamics
Posted by CM on December 9, 2008
The cholera epidemic sweeping Zimbabwe is mainly a humanitarian tragedy. But it also will have lasting effects on the country’s messy political situation.
It has given Robert Mugabe’s many detractors a more graphic reason to wind up their condemnation of him. International calls for his removal have reached a crescendo in the last few days, with even prominent foreign religious leaders calling for his forced removal.
While Mugabe has been masterful at deflaying criticism over stolen elections and violence against his supporters by framing them all in an anti-imperialist cloak, that is not so easy to do with the cholera crisis. People dying of cholera cannot be accused of doing it because they are stooges of a Britain bent on re-colonising Zimbabwe!
Some of the muted-ness of the criticism of Mugabe, in Africa in particular, is because of the strong underlying current of suspicion of the opposition MDC and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai. He is a brave man, but one who in recent times has repeatedly blundered by appearing to confirm suspicions that he and his party have become a completely compromised ‘project’ of Western interests with a dishonorable record in Zimbabwe in particular, and in Africa in general. Fairly or unfairly, many have let Mugabe off the hook for his many transgressions of the rights of Zimbabweans on the basis that his main opponent is such a lacklustre character.
But none of this kind of thinking can apply to the cholera epidemic. The horror of ordinary people dying from cholera in a recently highly functional country like Zimbabwe provides some of the most effective anti-Mugabe ammunition for his many detractors in many years. Even those whose ‘interest’ in Zimbabwe is entirely cynical and for ends having nothing to do with the welfare of Zimbabweans have found a particularly effective bandwagon on which to ride in the long fight to depose the widely hated Mugabe.
So Mugabe is faced with a problem that he can not brush away with this standard accusations against all who oppose him. Those afflicted by cholera are ordinary Zimbabweans whose political affiliation has nothing to do with their contracting what should be an easily preventable disease.
Blaming sanctions for the government’s inability to buy water-treatment chemicals sounds absurd. The amounts mentioned in public reports as being needed are not in the millions of US dollars, but in the hundreds of thousands. The Mugabe government merely confirms the accusations of it being totally un-concerned about the welfare of Zimbabweans when it makes those amounts of money available for things like the globe-trotting of Mugabe and his always large entourage, but then claims to not be able to afford basic chemicals essential for public health.
For these and many more reasons, politically things are unlikely to go back to pre-cholera ‘normal.’
Mugabe is dramatically more cornered, isolated and reviled than he was just a few weeks ago. This is saying a lot because particularly in the West, and especially in Britain, he has already long been portrayed as a horned devil, sometimes to absurd extents. But even in Africa, the discomfort level with him has risen dramatically, with increasingly loud critical statements coming from politicians in South Africa, Botswana and Kenya. Utterly predictably, the Mugabe government has dismissed a lot of these criticisms as being from leaders as Western-compromised as Tsvangirai, although the response to South African criticism is a lot more careful.
However the Mugabe government interprets the growing African criticism of the escalating crisis that Zimbabwe has become, the fact is that Mugabe’s international circle is growing ever smaller. Without the support of even his neighbours, his room to even keep his immediate band of supporters becomes more restricted, and whatever remains of his Africanist prestige severely dented.
Whether the MDC-ZANU PF power-sharing agreement was dead before the cholera outbreak or not, it virtually is now. The Mugabe side’s response may well be that they didn’t want to share power with the MDC anyway, and were only willing to consider it if it guaranteed relief from all the international pressures, particularly the cutting off of foreign money. The dramatically increased international criticism since the cholera epidemic began is not likely to make the Mugabe government more inclined to share power with the MDC. Instead they are likely to retreat further into their bunker and say “to hell with the MDC.”
It would not be surprising if the increased international pressure on the Mugabe government caused it to tip over eventually. But it is far from clear that this would necessarily mean the MDC would just walk into government. And if they did under those circumstances, they would be beginning with a terrible millstone on their necks: as indeed the government that was installed in office by Western pressure. This would obviate much of their significant support in Zimbabwe, even if perhaps the initial reaction might just be overwhelming relief at the exit of the Mugabe government.
Even if Mugabe did now agree to whatever differences are holding up an MDC-ZANU PF power-sharing deal from being effected, would it be wise for the MDC to co-govern with ZANU-PF at this point? There might well be far more negatives than positives for them as a party from going to bed with ZANU-PF, unless the MDC had a clear upper hand in the balance of power, which ZANU-PF is not likely to concede.