Zero tolerance for Zimbabwe

If Zimbabwe's elections had been free and fair, how much difference would it have made?

Barrie Collins

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Topics Politics

President Robert Mugabe beat his rival Morgan Tsvangirai by 1.7million to 1.26million votes to win a fifth presidential term of office in Zimbabwe.

Britain, the USA, France and other Western states condemned the elections as unfree and unfair, while South Africa, Nigeria and the African Union upheld the result as legitimate. Mugabe received messages of congratulations from Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Namibia and Nigeria.

Tellingly, two of the African election observer groups that expressed doubts about the result – the Southern Africa Development Community Parliamentary Forum and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network Observer Missions – are both funded by the European Union (1).

Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), is charged with orchestrating a violent campaign of intimidation against voters, and with deliberately reducing the number of polling booths in areas where the opposition is strongest, particularly the capital Harare. Yet despite the election being extended into a third day, many voters still had to be turned away at the end of polling – and there was a high turnout throughout the country. Opposition supporters do not seem to have been too intimidated to vote. Reading some of the media coverage, it is difficult to see how anything less than a Tsvangirai victory would have pleased the West.

Would a completely flawless election have reversed Mugabe’s 400,000-lead over the opposition? We aren’t likely to get a consensus about that from the groups who monitored the elections. The stark contrast between the blunt condemnation by Western monitors and the more supportive tone of their African counterparts reflects a tension that has little to do with the specifics of the election, and is therefore not explicable by analysing the differences in the election observers’ reports.

Rather, the tension is a result of the way the UK government, the European Union and the Bush administration have used Zimbabwe’s elections as a vehicle for a more high-handed approach towards African governments.

The West’s collective weight also influences Africa’s relations with international financial institutions, making its ‘conditionality’ of good governance, democracy and respect for human rights a powerful diplomatic instrument. By contrast, South Africa is using its rapidly rising profile in Africa to champion the idea of an ‘African Renaissance’ – calling for African solutions to African problems, an aim shared by many African states. It was these two agendas that clashed over Zimbabwe’s elections.

For Britain’s part, prime minister Tony Blair, Prince Charles and Lord Peter Carrington (who brokered the Lancaster House talks leading to Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980) claim that Zimbabwe is now a ‘test’ of the Commonwealth’s credibility. Prince Charles is alleged to have said: ‘if the Commonwealth could not stand up for liberal democracy and human rights, it deserved to be treated with international contempt.’ (2)

So taking an apparently principled stand on Zimbabwean democracy is a means of reasserting British leadership in the Commonwealth and breathing new life into the UK’s ‘ethical’ foreign policy. It also helps to raise Britain’s profile in the European Union: Britain was the primary instigator of the EU’s decision to implement ‘smart sanctions’ against Zimbabwe, and looks set to push for further stringent measures in the wake of the election result. UK foreign secretary Jack Straw is apparently planning to make what one diplomatic source called ‘an extremely hard-hitting statement’ in the House of Commons on 20 March 2002 (3).

The USA has also imposed ‘smart sanctions’ and passed a ‘Zimbabwe Democracy Act’. Predictably, it has linked its stance on Zimbabwe to its all-encompassing war on terror – with Walter Kansteiner, US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, claiming that top Zanu PF officials are involved in diamond trading in the Democratic Republic of Congo and that some have links to al-Qaeda and Hezbollah (4).

Other donors to Zimbabwe, including Japan and Germany, have frozen aid. Such international isolation can only make things worse for Zimbabwe’s already shrinking economy.

For his part, Mugabe’s invectives against the UK are largely for the benefit of his constituents, rather than being a principled stand against neo-colonial domination. He vacillates between serving a rump nationalist constituency and seeking closer ties with the international community. But Zimbabwe’s economic slide in recent years shows that he is finding both relationships increasingly unmanageable.

Mugabe may have bucked agreements with Britain over land reforms, but he continues to seek international support on the issue. He recently set up an international audit of the current ‘fast-track’ programme, appointing members of the United Nations Development Programme as lead advisers for the new scheme (5). As the international community turns up the heat on Mugabe, we can expect greater compliance, alongside further face-saving rhetorical broadsides.

While Britain bears responsibility for the iniquity of Zimbabwe’s land distribution – as a result of the terms laid out by the UK in the Lancaster House Agreement of 1979 – the issue remains unresolved because liberation war leader Mugabe actually doesn’t want to fall out with Britain. He complied with the Agreement’s 20-year clause on ‘willing buyer, willing seller’, which effectively secured the white farms. If he had wanted to, Mugabe could have rallied the nation to the cause that was central to the war for independence and torn the Agreement up 20 years ago.

Western powers are using the Zimbabwean elections as a stick with which to beat the whole of Africa. Take the New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), a framework for increased international assistance to Africa that carries strict conditions of good governance. Some of NEPAD’s financiers have already indicated to South Africa that African unwillingness to condemn the Zimbabwe elections could affect funding levels.

South African president Thabo Mbeki has been lobbying the international community over Zimbabwe, and has tried to mediate between the West and Mugabe. Whether his latest push for an accommodation between Zanu-PF and the opposition in a government of national unity wins favour in the West, or with Mugabe, remains to be seen. As the opposition leadership face charges of treason for allegedly plotting to assassinate Mugabe, there seems to be little prospect of a working relationship between Zimbabwe’s two main parties.

Mbeki arrives in London on 19 March 2002, to join Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo and Australian prime minister John Howard to deliver their verdict on Zimbabwe’s elections to the Commonwealth secretary general. Whatever their recommendations, the international community looks set to demonstrate that Mugabe has won a pyrrhic victory.

Read on:

‘This time, Bob, it’s personal’, by Barrie Collins

(1) ‘EU agrees funding two observer groups’, Herald (Harare), 16 March 2002

(2) Advertiser (Australia), 11 March 2002

(3) Zimbabwe elections special report, Daily Mail and Guardian (South Africa), 15 March 2002

(4) ‘Top Zanu PF officials under probe over diamonds’, Zimbabwe Standard, 17 March 2002

(5) ‘SA Observers Seek End to EU, Harare Row’, Dumisani Muleya, Business Day (Johannesburg) February 15, 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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