Zimbabwe: talking up a revolution

Western governments are using the myth of a strong internal opposition to Mugabe's regime to conceal their own weakness.

David Chandler

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Recent media coverage of events in Zimbabwe suggests that popular opposition to Mugabe’s regime is on the rise and that Mugabe is only holding on to power through the use of media censorship and police repression. The sense of popular resistance and repression seems to have been captured by the worldwide coverage of the injuries received by Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), when dozens of opposition leaders were beaten by security forces on their way to a prayer rally two weeks ago.

The Independent’s special correspondent declares that Mugabe ‘is preparing to declare a state of emergency to try to keep control of the country’ and quotes an MDC youth organiser declaring that ‘the revolution has begun’ (1). The Observer’s Andrew Meldrum (reporting from Johannesburg) goes further, arguing that ‘an unofficial state of emergency has been imposed on Zimbabwe’. The feature is headlined ‘“Emergency law” on streets as Mugabe bids to cling on’. Yet the picture of mass protest, with the caption that it ‘shows how much support the MDC could mass’, is from 2005 (2).

Where Western journalists see revolution, it appears that on the ground in Zimbabwe the picture is more one of disillusionment and resignation. David Coltart, an MDC MP and Zimbabwe shadow justice minister, doubts whether the opposition could mobilise large-scale protests: ‘For all the publicity of the past week, the fact remains that the opposition hasn’t been able to mobilise tens of thousands of people which is partly to do with fear, partly to do with divisions in the opposition and partly to do with a shocking lack of information for ordinary people about what is going on.’ (3)

Rather than mobilising the masses, the leadership of the MDC are calling on the ruling Zanu-PF party to lead reform and hope that international pressure might persuade Mugabe to enter a power-sharing agreement (4). Not only are the opposition divided and lacking popular credibility, even the ruling Zanu-PF party has lost much of its legitimacy and relies on Mugabe as its figurehead. According to Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society: ‘The party is so divided, it’s difficult to see who could remove the old man.’ It’s clear that Dowden thinks that the loose talk of revolution in the press has little relation to Zimbabwean reality: ‘I don’t think things have changed so dramatically that you can talk about the government being toppled.’ (5)

Western states are happy to patronise the MDC opposition and have been pressurising Zimbabwe’s neighbours to condemn the regime yet, despite the talk of the imposition of a state of emergency, there has been no international outcry to match that which followed Mugabe’s policy of forced land seizures in 1990. The Independent argues that ‘Britain will try high risk diplomacy’ to deal with Mugabe. This refers to demands by Tony Blair and the foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, that the Human Rights Council of the United Nations sends a team of investigators into Zimbabwe to gather evidence on the ground about the brutality of Mugabe’s regime (6). This is not ‘high risk diplomacy’. This is no risk diplomacy.

In fact, the general consensus is that Britain can do very little and that inaction is the best approach. Even the Observer editorialises that: ‘Our verbal attacks have made him stronger.’ (7) Margaret Beckett would seem to agree that British meddling would make things worse: ‘I am sorry to say that in many parts of Africa, Mugabe is viewed as a kind of hero of the revolution, and if it comes to a choice between the hero of the revolution and the colonial oppressor, they know whose side to be on.’ (8)

Even the most radical interventionist voices seem muted. David Aaronovitch has been reduced to appealing to the moral conscience of his former activist colleague, Aziz Pahad, now the deputy foreign minister of South Africa. Aaronovitch isn’t calling for Britain or the US to intervene but for the South African government to help in the ‘liberation’ of Zimbabweans (9). The unease of liberal commentators is matched by the lack of public protest, best illustrated when around ten people staged a non-violent sit-in protest at the Zimbabwean embassy in London on Wednesday (10).

Rather than international outcry, there is an embarrassing silence over Zimbabwe. It appears that the UK and other Western governments feel much happier helping African states than condemning them. A lot has changed since the international outcry against the land seizures of the early 1990s. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, despite the diplomatic outcry, little practical action was expected of Western states beyond diplomatic isolation, trade sanctions and select travel bans.

Today, when Western states have signed up to a more interventionist framework of ‘the responsibility to protect’, and waged war for ‘regime change’, governments have less freedom to practice the rhetorical condemnations of ‘ethical foreign policy’. Even rhetorical condemnation is embarrassing for governments such as the US and the UK. Not, as Margaret Beckett argues, because this may help Mugabe’s anti-imperialist reputation but because the question is then raised of what action the government will take to follow up on the rhetoric. It is partly in response to this embarrassment that Western leaders are keen to talk up the strength of the opposition forces within Zimbabwe and the role of neighbouring states.

David Chandler is professor of international relations in the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster. His latest book is Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building (buy this book from Amazon (UK)).

Previously on spiked

Barrie Collins asked if free and fair elections would change the result and questioned why the international community is so hung-up on democracy for the country. Josie Appleton suggested that the last thing Zimbabwe needed was more interference from Britain.

(1) ‘Zimbabwe nears state of emergency as the anti-Mugabe rebellion grows’, Independent, 18 March 2007

(2) Andrew Meldrum, ‘“Emergency law” on streets as Mugabe bids to cling on’, Observer, 18 March 2007

(3) Opposition prepares for final push, but can it lead a weary population?, Guardian, 20 March 2007

(4) See also David Coltart: Now is the time for concerted action, Independent, 15 March 2007

(5) Cited in Mugabe soldiers on, Guardian, 14 March 2007

(6) Britain asks UN to send investigators into Zimbabwe, Independent, 16 March 2007

(7) Only Mbeki can save Zimbabwe, Observer, 18 February 2007

(8) Basildon Peta, Andy McSmith and Anne Penketh, ‘Britain asks UN to send investigators into Zimbabwe’, Independent, 16 March 2007. Britain asks UN to send investigators into Zimbabwe, Independent, 16 March 2007; See also The politics of impotent hand-wringing, Guardian, 21 March 2007

(9) Whatever happened to you, Aziz, my comrade?, The Times (London), 20 March 2007

(10) Zimbabwe ‘a sinking Titanic’, Guardian, 21 March 2007

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