Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Posts Tagged ‘Mugabe’

Impressions of Zimbabwe in August 2009

Posted by CM on October 25, 2009

Visitors to Zimbabwe who have been fed a BBC/CNN-type diet of news about ‘The Zimbabwe Crisis’ and how everything in the country has ‘collapsed’ will be surprised at how ‘normal’ Harare looks at first glance. Driving from the airport into town, there are certainly signs of decay since a few years ago, but no immediate or obvious signs of the ‘collapse’ that certain media have in recent years hysterically, lovingly and perhaps even hopefully talked about.

Looking out of the airplane’s windows as it circled to land and on the drive into town in early August, the most obvious change for me was how areas that had once been at least semi-savannah on the outskirts of Harare had been stripped of trees. One manifestation of ‘The Crisis’ in recent years has been the difficulty in accessing forms of modern energy that had once been taken for granted: petrol, diesel, paraffin, butane, coal, electricity, etc. Their availability had been erratic for many years and their cost prohibitive, forcing many people to resort to firewood for energy. Hence the massive deforestation, which I later found was widespread.

The still newish airport is clean and well maintained, though the number of vacant boutiques compared to, for instance, Nairobi airport’s full complement of seemingly thriving over-charging boutiques was one indicator that things were not quite ‘normal.’ On the drive home from the airport there was no dramatic evidence of ‘The Zimbabwe Crisis,’ though the buildings did look shabbier than before and there were definitely more potholes to dodge on the roads. But the over-riding impression for me was the powerful natural beauty and colour of Zimbabwe, not the indices of the difficult times the country has undergone in recent years.

Having had a few days to unwind at home, I began to gradually drive around and explore my home city Harare. There definitely seemed less traffic on the roads than I remembered from a few years ago. Finding a parking spot in the city center was surprisingly easy at any time of day and the roads there were generally in very good shape, as appeared to be most of the visible infrastructure.

In town and in many of the suburban shopping centers there were many more vacant shops than before, but I was also impressed by the number of businesses that had hung on during the difficult years. But almost all had ‘diversified’ in various ways, with all selling a much wider variety of goods and/or services to survive. I thought the general level of service in shops had declined noticeably. I didn’t encounter any outright rudeness but it seemed noticeably common to be met by disinterested, bored and sometimes almost sullen store personnel. Almost all stores I remembered from a few years ago had a much narrower range of goods than during ‘the good old days,’ but many people mentioned to me that what I thought was a limited range of goods was a vast improvement from the situation a few months ago, and that the availability of goods was improving dramatically by the day, one of the early benefits of the US-“dollarization” of the economy.

While the widespread shortages of all kinds of goods was rapidly receding into the past as price controls and currency restrictions fell away, most things seemed very expensive, sometimes absurdly so. In the weeks before my visit home I had visited Europe and the U.S., as well as having passed through Senegal’s capital city Dakar,  a city not known to be cheap, and so I particularly keenly felt the comparatively high cost of goods and services in Harare. It was easy to understand why many Zimbabweans are only grudging in their praise of the ‘normalization’ that has begun to take place. “We are happy the shops are full again but we can’t afford the goods” was a frequent complaint I heard. But even as people grumble about “we can’t afford anything” the shops are certainly not empty of customers, although many merchants and traders said the level of spending was still low and still limited mainly to necessities. Yet all I spoke to agreed that the situation was significantly better than before, and dramatically better than in 2008, the period everyone agreed was Zimbabwe’s low point, with hyperinflation, shortages, violence and political tension and so on at their worst.

As ridiculously expensive as almost everything seemed to be, even in just the one month I was there prices were creeping down to more realistic levels. And if one took the trouble to shop around, which many more people were doing than I remember from before, it was possible to find widely varying prices for the same thing. A big culture change was that even in ‘formal’ shops it was possible to negotiate for price reductions, common in many countries all over the world but previously almost unheard of in Zimbabwe’s stiff formal economy. So merchants are feeling the effects of consumer resistance and growing competition from the opening up of the economy and the greater availability of goods, and they are being forced to respond by lowering their prices. In the shortage economy that had prevailed for several years, the relatively few people who could raise the hard currency to import goods became accustomed to charging huge, arbitrary mark-ups. The merchant was king, not the customer.

One of the most disheartening remaining signs of how Zimbabwe has slid was in the complete absence of a daily media alternative to the state media. There are no daily independent newspapers and at US$2 an issue, the weekly private newspapers are way out of reach of most people. Of course there is no private TV or radio so there is a huge information deficit. But this is not to say the state media dominates the shaping of opinion. Despite its near monopoly, state newspapers, TV and radio are so dull and so blatantly pro-establishment that their credibility is extremely low. The public has largely learned to sense when they are being fed propaganda instead of news, which is rather often, and to dismiss and ridicule it even if they don’t know for sure what the other sides of the story are. Even more than before, the propaganda is so crudely done that I found myself often marveling that the government didn’t find it embarrassing and a negation of its attempt to win heart and minds. The stiffness, awkwardness and the over-the-top nature of much of the state media in the support of Mugabe and ZANU-PF and against Tsvangirai and the MDC had an almost surreal, self-defeating quality in its crudeness.

President Mugabe is still ass-licked by the state media as much as ever before, and in a way that I do not think does him any credit. One big change was that Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Gideon Gono was no longer the swashbuckling public hero the media had tried to make him out to be when he was first appointed five or so years ago, promising to swiftly bring down hyper-inflation and perform all kinds of other miracles. Even in the slavish state media Gono’s gloss had long turned dull, with him now struggling to defend his controversial legacy to a tired-of-him, sceptical public. One would have to have been there in his early days in office and to experience what a dominant public presence he came to be to understand how far the man has fallen in public esteem.

Electricity and water cuts were frequent, although even in these regards many people said I had visited when the situation was getting much better than it once was. People are inconvenienced but out of necessity have had to adjust, and the down times are handled very matter of factly. Up until a few years ago I had never even seen a fuel-powered electricity generator but now many in the cities who can afford them have them and they are widely advertised in the Press. Those who have boreholes or wells can avoid the worst inconveniences of the periods without running water, but I was shocked by the number of people who calmly mentioned having gone for months without seeing a drop of municipal water in their taps, a major cause of last year’s cholera outbreak.

Visits to some of Harare’s once-bustling industrial areas were depressing. A few years ago a quick drive through any of them would have been enough to show anybody why Zimbabwe’s economy was the sub-region’s most dynamic after South Africa’s. Now they are quiet, many companies still open but quite clearly operating at a low level. The areas do not have the bustle of before; buildings, roads and company premises are no longer maintained like they once proudly were. But from job-seekers to company owners, many people said whereas most companies were just treading water for several years, there are now signs of activity picking up as a result of the policy changes in the economy and the relative political calm.

With low productivity in agriculture and industry for several years, and given all the crises the country has undergone, it is startling to see the number and proportion of smart late-model luxury cars on the streets of Harare. There seemed a very bizarre disconnect between the economy under-performing as it has done for years and the number and types of expensive cars which would have turned one’s head even in a wealthy, ‘normal’ economy. While the signs of the lack of investment in many critical areas of the economy were everywhere, this certainly did not seem to extend to the cars many higher-ups in government and the private sector drive. I’m still trying to figure out what this says, and whether this is positive or not.

My impressions are of a tiny slice of life in Zimbabwe. For instance, I only made two one-day forays into rural areas to visit relatives, and only made one other one-day trip out of Harare during my one-month stay. There are obviously many parts of the traumatic economic and political period Zimbabwe is just coming out of that will only be fully understood by those who were there during it. But the instinctive adaptation that one “who was there” undergoes to the rapidly changing situation is also precisely why it can be hard for them to pin down and catalogue the changes, even though they will have an insider’s deeper understanding of events they were a part of. On the other hand an inside-outsider like me, visiting for the first time in about three years, can much more quickly see what is different even if he has no first-hand knowledge and experience of the factors and events that drove the change.

When I ended my previously visit to Zimbabwe, in early 2007, it was with a very heavy heart. The economy was very steadily declining and the tensions between the rival political parties escalating. That state of affairs had been on-going for close to 10 years. There was a widespread sense that the country was still going down, with no one able to guess when we would hit bottom or how bad things would be then. I left home then worried and depressed.

My feelings were quite different this time. There remain many political and economic problems but there is now a widespread feeling that the worst is behind the country. There is not the same feeling of widespread political dread and economic desperation, even though things are far from easy or back to any definition of ‘normal.’  Everybody grumbles about how high the cost of living still is, but unlike before, prices are stable and in many cases even declining, and goods are widely available, which is a very different scenario from early 2007!

I found widespread relief at the existence of the inclusive government of the major political parties, and I thought that most people were generally much less passionately partisan than I remembered. I also think cynicism about all politicians was higher and more widespread than before, which may be a good sign!

The last ten years or so have been a lost decade for Zimbabwe in many ways. And there is no guarantee that the beginnings of stabilization that are being experienced will take hold or that the country will organize itself to get close to meeting its great potential. The possibility of the political parties going back to the bitter fighting that has contributed so greatly to Zimbabwe’s misery remains very real. But when I left Harare in early September after a month at home, for the first time in many years I felt the stirrings of hope about the country’s prospects.

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The mishandling of Zimbabwe’s cholera epidemic

Posted by CM on December 5, 2008

Nothing seems to be going right for Mr. Mugabe’s government. The sad, horrific cholera epidemic is not just a public health/humanitarian tragedy, it is also a public relations disaster for an already image-battered government.

Mugabe has survived the seemingly un-survivable many times before. There is, therefore, no reason to believe this latest calamity will force him from office the way it would do the administration of a functioning democracy. But still, the cholera epidemic is more of a knock to whatever reputation his government  still had than even anything the perennially out-foxed opposition MDC could throw at it.

The government’s defense has been, “Yes, the water treatment and sewage systems are falling apart, but this is not our fault but that of  ‘illegal’ Western sanctions.”  This is now the standard excuse whenever there is a problem.

But whether one buys the sanctions reason as the reason for the pitiful state of the country or not, there are so many ways in which the Mugabe government has completely dropped the ball in this case, unfortunately as in many others.

The government first disastrously tried to treat the epidemic in an information-control way rather than as an emergency public health issue. It initially denied that there was a cholera crisis. But the evidence was overwhelming so that couldn’t work. Then it tried to downplay the extent of it, just as certain other organisations in the country and outside are trying to exaggerate an already terrible situation for their own fund-raising, propaganda and other reasons.  But the nature of the crisis is such that it could not be easily minimised.

When the weight of  the evidence of the extent of the problem became too clear to deny, the government was grudging about owning up to it in a way that entrenched its growing reputation for callousness.

First it was only the deputy minister of health who came out of the bunker to tentatively, sheepishly admit that there was a problem after all, and that it might well be of a magnitude and of an urgency beyond the ability of the government to handle.  As the crescendo of condemnation of the government increased along with the deaths, the minister of health eventually came out of wherever he had been hiding, seemingly reluctantly.

Some NGOs had been calling for the declaration of a disaster (probably for their own self-serving reasons, as even those with little or no ability to intervene in a public health crisis competed to put out statements showing their ‘concern,’ very useful at fund-raising time with their donors.) The government initially reacted in it’s usual way: with a ‘we can take care of it, everything is under control’ bravado. But the negative publicity against it, the illnesses and the deaths all conspired to force the government to change tack and admit that it had a problem of a scale beyond its ability to handle.  The subsequent appeals for international help were late and sounded grudging, insincere, unconcerned, cynical.

In many countries, even the most notorious dictatorships, a calamity of this magnitude would have shamed the ruler to make at least a show of being personally concerned about and touched by the suffering of ordinary people. Even at a cynical, politicking level, the ruler would have recognised this as an opportunity to claim to be a benevolent, concerned “man of the people.” He would have made a show tour of the worst affected areas to be filmed “with the people” for the evening news shows.

Not Mr. Mugabe. In the midst of this humanitarian crisis, this indictment of his government’s management abilities and this latest shame to its image, he chose to go to Qatar for an economic summit. While there and on his return, not a word did he say about the cholera crisis sweeping the land he wants to continue ruling no matter what. Inappropriately, bizarrely, disastrously, the only comments from him were from Qatar on how he believes developing countries should mobilise funds for their own development bank. Who on earth is going to listen to and respect the opinions of a president on such an issue whose government cannot handle importing water-treatment chemicals or cholera-treatment packages?

His government’s inability to do so cannot be because of “illegal santions.” The money spent on the trip of he, his wife and their entourage to attend a talk-shop in Doha, Qatar would have made a significant difference if it had been instead applied to importing aluminium sulfate for treating water to help prevent cholera, or hydration packages to treat those afflicted. And canceling the trip to instead spend time at home even just pretending to be concerned about Zimbabweans dying of cholera, of all things in 2008, would have prevented the incremental increase in the image of Mugabe as an incredibly small-minded, self-important, deluded despot with no interest in the most pressing problems of his fellow citizens, and of no relevance to addressing those problems.

‘Illegal’ sanctions or not, what the Mugabe government has done with this latest own goal is to show its lack of concern for the citizens it claims it clings to power to serve, and its horribly misplaced sense of priorities at a time of numerous escalating crises.

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Mugabe vs. BBC, CNN

Posted by CM on September 29, 2008

A report by AFP:

Zimbabwe’s information minister has castigated western media for their coverage of President Robert Mugabe’s speech at the UN General Assembly, state media reported Friday.

Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said CNN and the BBC gave US President George W. Bush full coverage when he criticised Mugabe in his address to the Assembly this week, but denied Mugabe similar coverage for his speech.

“The so-called champions of press freedom, CNN and BBC cut the live broadcast when the President was hitting hard, full throttle, with a volley of intellectual punches left, right and centre,” Ndlovu said.

“Bush was given full coverage to demonise our President and our nation but our President was not given equal time to defend himself and his country.

“They always claim that they give balanced information through their media but they have proved themselves to be suffering from inexactitudes and stretches of imagination. I know why my predecessor threw them out of Zimbabwe.”

In his speech at the UN, Bush said the people of Zimbabwe needed help to free themselves from suffering under a “tyrannical regime.”

Mugabe hit back saying Bush “has much to atone for and very little to lecture us on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” adding that the US leader’s hands “drip with the innocent blood of many nationalities.”

The propaganda war continues at full throttle.

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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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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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Talks:The importance of subverting bitterness in the interests of Zimbabwe’s future

Posted by CM on July 23, 2008

The reasons that so many have called for some kind of negotiated settlement to The Zimbabwe Crisis are fairly obvious: there seems to be virtually no hope of any other neat resolution to the country’s deep and multiple divisions and hurts.

It is possible to accept the reality of this long-running impasse and the need for negotiations between the major political parties and yet still have very mixed feelings when those long-called for talks seem like they are finally, actually about to get underway. One of the reasons for this is accepting the need for negotiation is to accept that one will have to give up some things one considers fundamental to one’s position, to compromise on even those things that one considers of immutable principle.

Another reason why accepting negotiation as a way out of a deep conflict such as Zimbabwe’s political divide is because of how either part has to “give” in its sense of whether justice has been achieved or not.

It is the nature of politics for its most aggressive ‘professional’ practitioners to be egotistical and to a large extent motivated by personal visions of grandeur and the desire to exercise control over others. There is no reason to believe MDC politicians are fundamentally different from ZANU-PF politicians in this regard. But aside from the selfish personal motivations of their officials, there is also a broad difference in national vision between ZANU-PF and the MDC.*

This substantive difference means the MDC is extremely reluctant to sit at the same table with a party that has countenanced the beating, torture and killing of its members, and who they believe to be illegitimately occupying power. For its part, there are many ideologues in ZANU-PF who are offended by the very idea of negotiating with what they genuinely consider an upstart group of ‘sell-outs’ who do not ‘deserve’ to rule the country even if they got the majority of votes! Both sides would have preferred some sort of winner-take-all resolution in which they came out on top, but this is precisely what successive messy elections have failed to achieve, and why there is any talk of talks!

The fact that no one has been able to devise and enforce an easy way out of this impasse is presumably why both sides have reluctantly agreed to hold their noses in each others’ presence but agree to try to panel beat an accommodation for the sake of a country that is battered and down on its knees.

Everybody will have to swallow very hard for the talks to be seen to be successful, and then will come the even harder job of implementing what would have been agreed.

But there is a precedent in Zimbabwe for putting aside hard-headedness to try to stop the country from sliding backwards. Ian Smith’s government and Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU provided that precedent at the Lancaster House talks that led to the birth of Zimbabwe. They had no particular love for each other and tens of thousands of civilians had perished before they agreed to negotiate. “Never ever” for all  of them became doable and necessary because the situation forced that upon them.

To many white Rhodesians Smith was a hero who was keeping the African barbarians away from the gates of their fairy tale existence. To many Africans he was a racist war criminal, even if “the trains ran on time and inflation was low” under him. To Africans Mugabe and/or Nkomo were towering African revolutionaries who gave them pride, dignity and hope, to most whites they were ‘communist terrorists.’ Still they had to talk and bitter, impassioned loose talk of retribution had to be put aside.

Thirty years later, Zimbabwe is at a pass requiring similar compromises between bitter enemies.

But into this mix is thrown the interfering calculations of those who have bestowed on themselves the right to try to influence events in Zimbabwe in certain ways, not necessarily to support whatever consensus the Zimbabweans decide is in their own best interests.

David Blair, the UK Daily Telegraph’s resident “Africa expert” very nicely shows this potential spanner in the Zimbabwe works with his article A Mugabe deal could land Britain with a dilemma.

Blair worries what Britain would do if the current talks ended up in a ‘Kenya scenario” in which Mugabe held effective power and Tsvangirai was given the consolation prize of Chief Window Dresser. What on earth would Britain do if Tsvangirai as prime minister came knocking on Bwana Gordon Brown’s door asking for the release of aid to help begin reviving Zimbabwe’s economy?

If a negotiated resolution of the crisis which Zimbabweans themselves can live with is all that Britain wants, as it insists, Blair should not need to worry about what difficult compromises the Zimbabweans agree to make to reach that resolution. But things aren’t that simple, are they? Blair ever so delicately tiptoes around the issue of why, well, even if the Zimbabweans were willing to accept a ‘Kenya settlement’ that Britain would not be able to consistently oppose, the ex-colonial master might decide to not play ball.

The issue for the British, you see, isn’t so much just the ‘resolution’ of the crisis, but the exit of the bitterly hated Mugabe! No, you see, Zimbabwe is completely different from Kenya: both sitting presidents might have stolen the elections they use to justify holding on to power, but Kenya’s Kibaki is clearly a gentleman and a Good African while Mugabe is clearly a Bad African! Surely the world would not expect civilised Britain to continue to live and do business with such a monster!

Even if the Zimbabweans, including the British-friendly MDC, have reluctantly accepted Mugabe’s continuing presence as the price they must pay for moving on? Which consideration would be uppermost in Britain’s course of action: respect for the decision of the Zimbabweans to proceed as they deem fit, or pique at the fact that the all-important goal of Mugabe’s immediate exit from the scene would not have been achieved?

Mr. Blair ends his article with:

Britain endorsed this subversion of democracy and, astonishingly, senior officials cite Kenya as a recent success story. If the same unfolds in Zimbabwe, the Foreign Office will have no grounds for indignation. If prime minister Tsvangirai shows up at Downing Street, he will doubtless ask: “If this was good enough for Kenya, why not Zimbabwe too?”

Blair coyly avoids answering his own question but we all know why for the British, Mugabe is the Irredeembaly ‘Bad African’ Who Must Be Deposed At All Costs.

As so often happens, it was a reader responsdig to Blair’s article that spoke that which Blair left unsaid:

Kibakism, as atrocious as it seems, does not compare to the entrenched evils of Mugabism: Kenya didn’t expel British farmers, confiscate their land and property or terrorize them as Mugabe and his Zimbabwean gendarmes did.

Kibakism, unlike Mugabism, did not mastermind, orchstrate and execute large-scale ethnic cleansing of  minority opposition leaders, members, tribesmen and women. Ethnic conficts broke out to protest election
results supposedly rigged by the Kikuyu-tribe-dominated government; using instruments and powerful
infrastuctures of ethnic-electoral majoritarianism. Zimbabwe’s bloody xenophobic, tribalistic machinery is
a year-round operation, unlike Kenya’s seasonal rage.

The attempted distinctions between why Kibaki should be considered so much better than Mugabe are almost funny. The “large-scale ethnic cleansing of minority opposition leaders, members, tribesmen and women”. the reader offers for the particular un-acceptability of Mugabe were official policy under Smith’s Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, but everyone gushed that the Africans were ever so incredibly noble for reconciling with their tormenters in a way the British would have us believe should now not at all be possible in Zimbabwe!

But I give the reader responding to Blair credit for being honest about why Mugabe is British Public Enemy Number One. Its not the usual sentimental fare of ‘oh, those poor African oppressed and impoverished by one of their own, how terrible.’

Blair’s article and the reader reaction to it are a refreshingly revealing and honest insight into just why Britain is so emotional about Zimbabwe, and about Mugabe in particular.

It ain’t about human rights or democracy!

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Talks offer Zimbabwe the chance of a new beginning

Posted by CM on July 23, 2008

There was a lot of symbolism to digest at July 22nd’s historic meeting between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai.

Mugabe looked even more surly than usual. It seemed clear he had been brought there kicking and screaming by the circumstances of his own awkward and embarrassing recent self-coronation and the disgust of even many who have been his knee-jerk sympathisers. Mr. Mugabe did not at all look like a man who was in a triumphant or celebratory mood over the recent election which he “won” by being the only candidate. He was a sorry, sulky sight.

Tsvangirai was pictured grinning from ear to ear, not seeming to believe he was there at all and finally having to be taken seriously by a Mugabe he knows has utter contempt for him.

Arthur Mutambara was pictured in one of his usual bombastic poses, trying a little too hard to look powerful and dynamic. Here is a man who has done little or nothing to justify being taken seriously as a political player, but he somehow worked himself there. The handful of MPs of his small faction of the opposition are how he found himself there of course, but they do not offer any vision or ideological differences from Tsvangirai’s MDC faction. Their participation in the talks will be mostly about making sure they are included in whatever spoils are parceled out: positions, cars and the other normal perks of the parasitic political class.

Poor Simba Makoni couldn’t talk his way there, not helped by the poor showing of his upstart, formed-just-before-the-election political movement. Yet Makoni has been  insisting to anybody who would listen that he was central to the resolution of The Crisis. An AFP report:”I cannot explain my absence from that signing ceremony,” the former finance minister told South African public radio, saying “many Zimbabweans” believed his movement should have a role in both the current talks and the future of the country.

“Many Zimbabweans” possibly being his family and hangers on who would have liked to have been there to simply be in the receiving line for any goodies that may be given out.

Thabo Mbeki played it surprisingly cool for a man seemingly on the brink of vindication after years of quietly suffering vilification for his insistence on “quiet diplomacy.”

It was conspicuously an all-African affair despite the valiant failed efforts of Britain and the US to work their way to the center of determining how The Zimbabwe Crisis is resolved. They have all been calling for some kind of negotiated settlement, but it will be interesting to see if they will be happy with a settlement in which they do not dictate the terms!

Gordon Brown, the EU & Co. have also insisted they would not be happy with any deal in which Mugabe remained in power. There is approximately zero prospect of Mugabe agreeing to step down unceremoniously, or even to accept a window-dressing role, so it will also be interesting to hear what sputtering comes from those foreign quarters to a Zimbabwean-negotiated, South African-aided deal that offers much less than they hope: the final exit of a Mugabe who has been a thorn in their flesh, with what kind of ruler he has been for Zimbabweans being a very distant second consideration in their raw, emotional distaste of him. It would be entirely excusable to them if he was merely a despot but who did as he was told, but the man insists on hurling the Anglo-American foreign policy and historical hypocrisies in their faces.

But the worst panic and disappointment at even the slightest hint of moves to resolve The Zimbabwe Crisis will surely be felt by the British media. What on earth would The Daily Telegraph, The Times of London and the Guardian have to write about if Mugabe was taken away from them as a target of their hysteria? Where on earth would they find another such perfect villain to serve as the object of their deeply racial, post-colonial angst? That hysteria is not for the stated reason that Mugabe has become a repressive despot, which he is. His greater sin is being an African native who dares to speak and act towards the Western world like an equal of theirs!

The Western world has insisted their targeted sanctions against Mugabe and his henchmen have been to moderate their behaviour, a claimed goal that over the years has failed miserably. But just when for the first time Mugabe has felt the heat of world pressure and economic trouble at home to come to the negotiating table, the EU under Gordon Brown’s pressure ups the sanctions ante! If sanctions are part of why Mugabe feels under pressure to now talk, how is increasing those sanctions at the point of

Talks don’t mean mean Zimbabwe is out of the words. Many have mentioned how Mugabe’s does not have a good record of negotiating in good faith, how he is accustomed to conceding little or nothing and why Tsvangirai should be on the alert for simply being co-opted as Mugabe has done with other opponents after first softening them up with ferocious violence.

There is also the considerable issue of the genuinely deep ideological divide between Mugabe and ZANU-PF on one hand and Tsvangirai and the MDC on the other. Kenya’s coalition government may be an uneasy one, but there are at least no ideological differences between the two main partners the way there are in Zimbabwe. Nothing is impossible, but even if the two parties agree to give it a try, it is hard to imagine they could really live together for long as co-governing coalition. The many differences between them are vast, deep and wide.

But Zimbabwe is on its knees and desperately needs to stop the bleeding. Any chance to do that must be explored, no matter how great the obstacles to success seem.

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John Pilger speculates on reasons for Mbeki’s approach to Mugabe

Posted by CM on July 7, 2008

It is not easy these days to find calm voices on either or any side of “the Zimbabwe crisis.” Everyone seems to be competing to be louder and more emotional than the other.

Most people remain perplexed, and many outraged, by the perception of South African president Thabo Mbeki as soft on or sympathetic to Robert Mugabe. Whatever the reasons for it, it seems pretty clear to me that the reality of whatever Mbeki’s true feelings towards Mugabe is not going to change any time soon. So while I understand the fascination with the question, I’m not sure posing it repeatedly with anguish is very important to solving Zimbabwe‘s problems right now. But it is admittedly an interesting issue, if only as a debating point.

One of the most calm and lucid people to ponder the issue is writer John Pilger in his article ‘The silent war on Africa.’

Says Pilger, “That Mugabe is an appalling tyrant is beyond all doubt; yet there is a subtext to the overly enthusiastic condemnation of him by the “international community”, notably in Europe. “Unacceptable!” says British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, having personally distinguished the campaign to morally rehabilitate the concept of empire.”

He points out the hypocrisy of Brown’s “highly selective condemnation of uppity despots like Mugabe while fawning before equally awful despots such as the Saudi Royal family?”

“If nothing else, Mugabe has provided retrospective justification for the glory days. And perhaps his greatest crime is having slipped the leash. After all, both despots and democrats in Africa provide an essential service, or as Frantz Fanon put it in The Wretched of the Earth, “the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged. [They are] quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent.” Those who refuse the role of business agent have often paid with their lives: from Patrice Lumumba to Amilcar Cabral, Ken Saro-Wiwa to Chris Hani.”

Pilger then goes on to chronicle a litany of ways in which the Western world is fully implicit in Africa‘s many messes. Most readers will be familiar with the arguments, from the aforementioned hypocrisy in deciding who is a “good guy” in the world and who is not, to cynical trade terms and cynical development policies.

“None of this excuses the outrages of Mugabe. But look beyond the West’s whipping boy and mark the enduring outrage of an imperial past that remains (enaaged in) a war against Africa that Africans must win,” he writes.

Then he gets to the crux of his article.

“Why is Thabo Mbeki so soft on Mugabe? Is it simply loyalty to a past of “joint struggle”, as has been suggested?.”

Pilger describes how the hopes of the South African poor for a meaningful improvement in their post-apartheid, post-1994 situation have been betrayed under first Mandela and now under Mbeki.

He concludes, “When Robert Mugabe attended the ceremony to mark Thabo Mbeki’s second term as President of South Africa, the black crowd gave Zimbabwe‘s dictator a standing ovation. The embarrassment and message for Mbeki was like a presence. “This was probably less an endorsement for Mugabe’s despotism,” noted the writer Bryan Rostron, “than a symbolic expression of appreciation for an African leader who, many poor blacks think, has given those greedy whites a long-delayed and just come-uppance.”

It was also a warning.”

Well, while I think Pilger’s conclusion is correct, there is also nothing earth-shakingly original about it. The vision of a happy-ever-after “rainbow nation” was too much of a hopeful fantasy given the water that has gone under the bridge in South Africa over the last few centuries. Perhaps even more so than Zimbabwe, the deep wounds of a very violent recent history could not just be swept under the carpet by having a smiling, well-liked president like Mandela for a few years.

There are already many signs of the bubbling to the surface of many long-simmering resentments, compounded by the disappointment of failed (and unrealistic) expectations of what could be quickly achieved in the post-apartheid era, that may eventually make South Africa not quite the miracle nation many hope it can continue to be.

Pilger builds and concludes his argument well, but for me has not delivered any dramatic new insights into exactly why Mbeki has seemed to remain so partial to Mugabe.

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A predictable but fascinating AU summit in Egypt

Posted by CM on July 1, 2008

I am surprised that there are some people who really hoped African leaders attending the African Union summit in Egypt would pull some kind of Zimbabwe crisis “solution” out of a hat.

The AU is not famed for taking strong stands on anything, for one. Two, the AU has no real leverage over Mugabe. Even if they had uncharacteristically chided him publicly, how would they effect any decision taken against him?

Three, our old colonial masters the British and the current world emperor the US have just never learned how much their treatment of Africans in the not too distant past still elicits very strong emotions against them when they are perceived to be throwing their weight around . The shrill carping from their capitals of UK prime minister Gordon Brown and US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice about what the gathered AU leaders “must do” about Mugabe was not at all helpful. It simply gave the leaders a splendid reason to withdraw into their “anti-colonialist” psychological bunker.

Why is it that despite centuries of close proximity to us as our lords and masters, the Western world has learned so little about the lingering psychic effects of their controlling every aspect of our lives, and the instinctive resentment against a perceived replaying of old roles? If they really wanted to be helpful at the AU summit, they went about it exactly the wrong way.

Is it really possible in 2008 that Mr. Brown and Madame Rice, herself of African stock, did not understand that their kind of megaphone ‘diplomacy’ of ‘you must do this to Mugabe’ would not only fail, but even cause the defensive rallying around Mugabe of even those AU leaders who realise how much catastrophe the man has caused?

Four, very few of the AU leaders have electoral credentials that are any better than Mugabe’s, so it was rather optimistic  to expect that they would take him on. Prior to his departure for Egypt he had effectively blackmailed the AU leaders by challenging those who felt they had cleaner electoral records to speak up, with a rather predictable silence as the response.

Prime minister Raila Odinga of Kenya, the only leader to publicly lament the crooked electoral process by which Mugabe claimed his 6th term in office two days ago, was strangely but not surprisingly not in Egypt to face the fierce Mugabe, who loves a brawl and is not at all embarrassed to fight rough.

Previous mild critic Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia, who predictably was called all sorts of names by Mugabe regime officials when he correctly referred to Zimbabwe as a “sinking ship” last year, would have sat next to Mugabe at the summit, according to alphabetical seating by country name.

But strangely the ailing Mwanawasa, 59, suffered a stroke immediately on arriving in Egypt and spent the duration of the summit in hospital! It was almost as if the thought of sitting next to the fit, spry and currently livid and combative Mugabe, 84, was too much for him.

Did Madame Rice really expect that the best Arab friend of the US, Egyptian host president Hosni Mubarak, no stranger to fixed elections in his 27 years in power, was going to be in a position to spank Mugabe for holding a crooked election?

The predictability of the summit not taking any kind of strong stand against Mugabe did not mean the meeting was dull or lacked drama.

Some British journalists provoked Mugabe into a sputtering rage by one of them asking him how it felt “to have stolen the election,” and by what right he claimed to be president of Zimbabwe.

Oh boy, that did it, as the journalists knew it would. Mugabe’s enraged response and the journalists being wrestled away by security staff were filmed for posterity and broadcast around the world. At home Emperor Mugabe is accustomed to only being asked reverentially posed softball questions by a compliant state propaganda media. But apart from that, Mugabe would have found the ‘provocation’ of being asked what he called “stupid questions” by British journalists, and at an African Union summit, a little too much to bear. The apoplectic Mugabe’s voice shook with rage as he found yet another excuse to rail against the British.

If the journalists were looking for gripping footage for their news broadcast, they got it alright. No doubt many of their viewers in the UK and much of the West and in many sections of the rest of the world will find the exchange to be confirmation of their view of Mugabe as a rogue. But I’m willing to bet that there are also many parts of the world where the British journalists handed Mugabe a major propaganda coup.

To the ‘Mugabe is right’ brigade, his ‘performance’ was classic, vintage Mugabe at his best and precisely what they love the man for: telling off the British.

The drama with the journalists could not have been expected, but everything else that happened was entirely predictable.

As far as contributing anything meaningful at all to the resolution of “the Zimbabwe crisis” the AU summit  was an absolute, predictable non-event.

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Could Mugabe try to steal the election in plain sight of the world?

Posted by CM on March 31, 2008

Incredible. 48 hours after the end of one of the world’s most anticipated, most watched elections and there have only been a handful of results, and no explanation as to why. Could Mugabe be so foolish and desperate as to try to steal an election which many pointers suggest his party and him personally massively lost? Could be be doing the exact crooked thing much of Zimbabwe and the world suspected and feared he would do? Virtually in broad daylight?

It seems hard to believe that he would risk whatever little credibility he still has left by doing this, but it is very difficult to imagine any other reason for such an awkward, embarrassing delay.

Many questions come to mind. Why do this now, instead of just having postponed the election under one pretext or another? Having taken the trouble to organise an election, and knowing the sceptical global microscope under which it was being conducted, why make a mockery of your own electoral process in this way? If Mugabe once had a plausible reason for arguing that he could win or at least get a respectable proportion of the vote, the believability of that claim is going up in smoke with every additional minute of delay.

Is it possible that Mugabe and ZANU-PF really believed they could honestly win this election? Are they dis-oriented and trying to figure out what to do because they had not seriously considered losing? Could they really have been that cut off from public sentiment?

Rigging, like propaganda, requires a certain amount of believability on the part of the practitioner. If the delay is to figure out a way to cook the results to show victories for Mugabe and ZANU-PF in the presidential and parliamentary elections respectively, then surely that delay has been counter-productive. Even in those areas where they might have legitimately won, the effect of the tardiness in announcing the results will be to put a big question mark on all those figures. Even more than before the election, Mugabe & Co. have scored a massive own-goal by ensuring that the only  result that will be widely considered to be honest would be the declaration of wins for Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC.

If the decision has been made to disregard the will of the voters, then rigging the process by announcing victories for Mugabe and ZANU-PF would be the wrong way to do it. Elections are about giving the winner legal and moral authority; credibility. There is no way a rigged election at this time and under the present circumstances can bestow any of these qualities on Mugabe. It would almost be more honest to just say, “I lost heavily but I have decided to stay on as a formal dictator and see what happens.”

The few official parliamentary results that have been announced include the not very surprising news that close Mugabe henchmen have lost. The losers include justice minister Patrick Chinamasa, agricultural mechanization minister Joseph Made, information minister Sikhanyiso Ndhlovu. Vice President Joice Mujuru is also said to have lost in her parliamentary constituency, although another report casts doubt on the veracity of that result.

If the idea is to rig the election, then these announced losses also make that difficult. These people were not just at Mugabe’s right hand, they were in charge of portfolios critical to the whole thrust of what he said he wanted to continue in power for. It will be very difficult to argue that these close aides of Mugabe’s, and no doubt many others whose losses are yet to be announced,  could have been massively rejected by the electorate but their boss and appointer convincingly re-elected. They are making as much of a mess of the attempted rigging plot as they have done of the country.

Perhaps the delay is not to figure out a half plausible rigging strategy after all. Perhaps despite the shock and panic of having been rejected by Zimbabweans, there still remains enough common sense amongst Mugabe and his cronies to realise that although they have been able to get away with a lot over the years, pulling off a coup of this sort will be a tall, uncomfortable order.

Maybe the delay is to give Mugabe & Co. just enough time to perform clean up tasks like destroy incriminating documents, loot whatever is left in the treasury, pack their  bags and make preparations for a quick get-away to whatever countries will take them.

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