Zimbabwe and the new Cowardly Colonialism

Western intervention against Robert Mugabe’s ‘evil regime’ put Zimbabwe into an economic straitjacket and disempowered its people.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

‘We’ve beaten Mugabe’, said a frontpage headline in the London Evening Standard yesterday. Only there were no quote marks around the words ‘We’ve beaten Mugabe’, which made it difficult to tell if the paper was reporting the thoughts of Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) upon its electoral victory over Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF Party, or its own back-slapping relish at the thought that its journalism may have played a part in toppling Mugabe. Indeed, ‘We’ve beaten Mugabe’ could be the slogan of political and media operators in Britain and elsewhere in the West, who like to fantasise that Mugabe is ‘Africa’s Hitler’, that his Zimbabwe was ‘more evil than, for example, China and Saudi Arabia’, and that it is up to the West to ‘put pressure on Zimbabwe to change’ (1).

The media reports about Zimbabwe’s elections present them as a clash between the ‘evil’ Mugabe and the ‘heroic’ Tsvangirai, an electoral battle for Zimbabwe’s soul. Mugabe is depicted as having brought Zimbabwe to its knees, causing widespread poverty and enforcing terror and repression, and Tsvangirai is discussed as the harbinger of a dignified ‘revolution’ against Mugabeism (2). This is a fantasy. It ignores the key role played by Western governments and financial institutions in using sanctions, tough diplomacy and the proxy interventionists of the South Africa government and the African Union to isolate and harry Zimbabwe over the past decade. Such self-serving external meddling has contributed to Zimbabwe’s economic crisis – and it has dangerously distorted the political dynamics inside Zimbabwe and elsewhere in the south of Africa.

Over the past 10 years, American and European governments cynically transformed Mugabe’s Zimbabwe into the West’s whipping boy in Africa, the state they love to hate, a country against which they can enforce tough sanctions to demonstrate their seriousness about standing up to ‘evil’. The West has imposed economic sanctions on Zimbabwe, warned off foreign investors, denied Zimbabwean officials the right to travel freely around the world, demonised Mugabe as an ‘evil dictator’, discussed the idea of military action against Zimbabwe, and used moral and financial blackmail to cajole South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki to ‘deal with’ Mugabe (3).

Objectively, this singling out of Mugabe’s regime as the ‘worst government on Earth, the most brutal, destructive, lawless government’ made little sense (4). No doubt Mugabe is a nasty piece of work, but then so are some of the government heads that the West is more than happy to work with. Indeed, one could argue that, over the past decade, there was more choice and openness in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe than there was in Rwanda and Uganda, both close political allies of America and Britain. No, Zimbabwe was labelled the demon of Africa, not in response to events on the ground in Zimbabwe itself, but in response to the needs and desires of governments in the West looking for a purposeful mission in international affairs.

Western meddling pushed Zimbabwe to the precipice. Yet listening to the discussion of the elections, you could be forgiven for thinking that the country had suffered from a sudden, inexplicable case of Spontaneous National Combustion. The economic crisis is depicted as a peculiar phenomenon on a continent where there has mostly been economic growth in recent years. Where most of Africa’s economies have been growing at a rate of between five and six per cent recently, Zimbabwe is the only African country that had a negative GDP in 2007/2008. It is reported that the Zimbabwean economy has shrunk by more than a third since 1999, a ‘decline worse than in major African civil wars’, says one newspaper (5). Apparently there’s an unemployment rate of around 80 per cent, and inflation is running at 100,586 per cent (6). Yet the only explanation given for this economic nosedive is Mugabe’s seizure of colonial-era, white-owned commercial farms eight years ago. As the UK Guardian says: ‘The economic crisis is largely blamed on the seizure of white-owned farms that began in 2000, disrupting the agriculture-based economy.’ (7) It is true that foreign exchange earnings from these former white-owned farms have plummeted, causing major economic problems; but there is more to Zimbabwe than tobacco and the other cash crops once produced by the white farmers.

A key driver of Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has been the West’s attempts to bring down Mugabe by turning the financial levers. Relentlessly, the American and British governments, and the European Union, economically punished Mugabe’s Zimbabwe for what they considered to be its political disobedience. In November 1998, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) implemented undeclared sanctions against Zimbabwe, by warning off potential investors, freezing loans and refusing to negotiate with Zimbabwean officials on the issue of debt. In September 1999, the IMF suspended its support for economic adjustment and reform in Zimbabwe. In October 1999, the International Development Association, a multilateral development bank, suspended all structural adjustment loans and credits to Zimbabwe; in May 2000 it suspended all other forms of new lending (8).

In December 2001, the US passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, which decreed that Mugabe could restore relations with international financial institutions only if he agreed to conditions on Zimbabwe’s rule of law, the presence of its troops in the Congo, and the conduct of its internal elections. The American law also instructed all US members of international financial institutions to oppose and vote against any extension of loans, credits or guarantees to Zimbabwe. In 2002, then British foreign secretary Jack Straw declared that Britain would ‘oppose any access by Zimbabwe to international financial institutions’. Also in 2002, British officials threatened to withdraw financial assistance to other countries in southern Africa unless they, too, imposed sanctions against Zimbabwe. This led Benjamin Mkapa, then president of Tanzania, to complain that African members of the British Commonwealth were enduring ‘a bombardment for an alliance against Mugabe’ (9). The European Union imposed ‘smart’ sanctions against Zimbabwe, refusing to allocate visas for travel in EU countries to Mugabe and his officials and freezing all of their economic assets in Europe (10). In the early and mid-2000s, both the World Bank and the IMF tried to dissuade states and institutions from extending financial credit to Zimbabwe. A Zimbabwean official claimed that: ‘Our contacts in various countries have indicated that these institutions are using all sorts of tactics to cow all those who are keen to assist Zimbabwe.’ (11)

The economic punishment of ‘evil Mugabe’ by powerful Western forces had a massive impact on Zimbabwe. According to one critical observer, Gregory Elich, author of Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem and the Pursuit of Profit, ‘Western financial restrictions made it nearly impossible for Zimbabwe to engage in normal international trade’. And ‘for a nation that had to import 100 per cent of its oil, 40 per cent of its electricity and most of its spare parts, Zimbabwe was highly vulnerable to being cut off from access to foreign exchange’. Elich argues that the impact of Western restrictions on trading and crediting with Zimbabwe was ‘immediate and dire’: ‘The supply of oil fell sharply, and periodically ran out entirely. It became increasingly difficult to muster the foreign currency to maintain an adequate level of imported electricity, and the nation was frequently beset by blackouts. The shortage of oil and electricity in turn severely hobbled industrial production, as did the inability to import raw materials and spare parts. Business after business closed down and the unemployment rate soared…’ (12)

Alongside turning the screws on Zimbabwe’s economy, the West interfered politically in an attempt to undermine Mugabe’s government. America’s Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001 authorised President George W Bush to fund ‘opposition media’ as well as ‘democracy and governance programmes’ inside Zimbabwe. In April last year, the US State Department confirmed for the first time that the US had sponsored ‘events’ in Zimbabwe aimed at ‘discrediting’ Mugabe (13). It is reported that the opposition party MDC also received financial backing and political direction from Britain, Germany, Holland, Denmark and the US.

A small number of political observers in the West have questioned the wisdom of Western interference in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs. When America passed its Zimbabwe Act, US congresswoman Cynthia McKinney asked during a debate in the House of Representatives why US officials were enforcing politically-motivated sanctions against a mostly democratic country: ‘Zimbabwe is Africa’s second-longest stable democracy. It is multi-party. It had elections last year [in 2001] where the opposition [the MDC] won over 50 seats in parliament. It has an opposition press which vigorously criticises the government and governing party. It has an independent judiciary which issues decisions contrary to the wishes of the governing party.’ (14) Indeed, one of the ostensible reasons why America passed the Act was to protest against the presence of Zimbabwean troops in the Congo. Yet, in 2001, both Uganda and Rwanda also had troops in the Congo; and neither Uganda nor Rwanda allowed opposition political parties or a free press. Yet both were allies of America, and received considerable economic backing from the US.

Mugabe was no doubt a rotten ruler; his party certainly used pressure and even force in order to secure victory in general elections in the late 1990s and the 2000s. Yet that is not why he was singled out as a ‘tyrant’ and an ‘African Hitler’. It was political considerations in the West that elevated Mugabe to that position and transformed Zimbabwe into a pariah state. Western governments despised what they considered to be Mugabe’s cheek, in particular his temerity in daring to seize white farms, to interfere in the Congo without a green light from the US, and his frequent denunciations of Western colonialism. Indeed, since the defeat of the white rulers of Rhodesia in 1980, Mugabe lived off his reputation as a brave warrior against Western arrogance in Africa. It was colonialism and imperialist intervention that gave him his base of support, which has always been a substantial one, despite, or perhaps because of, international hostility against Zimbabwe. As the African commentator Barrie Collins has argued: ‘Since the end of the Cold War, the USA and the UK have got used to a high degree of compliance on the part of African governments – and they are no longer prepared to tolerate those, like Zimbabwe, that insist on doing things their own way.’ (15)

Bashing Zimbabwe played a dual role for Western officials and commentators. It allowed those of a conservative stripe to defend the historic reputation of colonialism by comparing it favourably with the rule of individuals like Mugabe. Eton-educated British observers loathed Mugabe because they considered him a symbol of African cockiness, who had humiliated Ian Smith (the white minority ruler of a self-declared ‘independent’ Rhodesia from 1965 to 1979) before the eyes of the world. Attacking Mugabe’s rule became a way of rehabilitating the image of old-fashioned, British-tinged colonialism. At the same time, one-time anti-colonialist radicals – including most notably the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell in the UK – focused their political energies on opposing Mugabe, describing him as intolerant and not sufficiently respectful of minority rights. At a time when political radicalism is on the wane in the West, some activists sought to recover their old campaigning spirit by taking potshots at the easy target of a beleaguered African state. Indeed, radicals often led the charge for tougher economic and political punishment of Zimbabwe – and frequently, they got what they asked for.

From the late 1990s to today, Zimbabwe became the West’s favoured punchbag in the ‘Dark Continent’. Yet Western governments have chosen striking forms of intervention. Instead of militarily and directly intervening in Zimbabwean affairs – despite loud demands from the colonialist/radical alliance that they should do so – governments in the West pursued a more hands-off form of meddling in Mugabe’s regime. They used sanctions and economic blackmail; they funded opposition parties and ‘events’; and most revealingly they put pressure on South Africa, Tanzania and other nearby states to use their muscle to try to push Mugabe from power. This was effectively ‘blacked-up imperialism’, an attempt by Western powers nervous about being seen smashing their way into Africa to use local proxies to do their dirty work for them. To their credit, many African officials refused to play the game. The African Union turned down Western suggestions to send forces to Zimbabwe in 2005, arguing that ‘it is not proper for the AU commission to start running the internal affairs of members’ states’. Though South Africa’s Mbeki has become involved in Zimbabwean politics, he has also, to the irritation of Western observers, insisted that the future of Zimbabwe ‘has never been a South African responsibility’ (16).

Zimbabwe captures both the West’s sense of caution in international affairs and also its inexorable drive to interfere wherever and however it can. As the former British foreign secretary Margaret Beckett argued, Britain cannot be seen explicitly interfering in Zimbabwe because we are ‘the old colonial power’ – yet at the same time Britain apparently has a ‘responsibility’ to spread democracy around the world (17). The end result of this schizophrenic approach to African affairs and international affairs more broadly – a political defensiveness combined with a desire to do something seemingly purposeful and proper – is an unpredictable, ravenous, behind-the-scenes form of meddling in other countries’ affairs, a kind of ‘cowardly colonialism’. And it can have dire consequences for people in the third world.

On the basis of little more than the fact that they needed a focus for their international pretensions, Western governments have put Zimbabwe into an economic straitjacket and warped its internal political process. If the sanctions, blackmail and withdrawal of trade have helped to push Zimbabwe’s economy into freefall, then the relentless backdoor political interventions have disempowered the people of Zimbabwe. The dynamic of Western intervention caused Mugabe to become more entrenched and paranoid about outsiders – and it encouraged the MDC to look to Western officials and radicals for their favour and flattery rather than to build a meaningful grassroots movement inside Zimbabwe. Indeed, for all the talk of a ‘revolution’ in Zimbabwe, both during minor street protests last year and during the elections this week, many people actually seem quite resigned about Zimbabwe’s fate. As one report recently said: ‘[T]he opposition hasn’t been able to mobilise tens of thousands of people…’ (18) Lots of the current news coverage continually shows Zimbabweans queuing up for hours to buy a newspaper for a few thousand dollars so that they can read about the elections. This footage is supposed to show how bad inflation has become in Zimbabwe, but it also reveals something else: that the West’s attempted strangulation of Mugabe’s regime reduced the people of Zimbabwe to observers rather than masters of their fate, who look to the front pages of newspapers to find out what might happen next in their country.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill said that Darfur has become pornography for chattering classes. Philip Cunliffe looked at what it means for Darfur to have been colonised by ‘peacekeepers’. He argued that Bernard-Henri Lévy’s report from Darfur shows that liberal lust for Western intervention survived Iraq, and that African Union troops are being enlisted in Darfur to give a respectable face to Western intervention. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

(1) End of days for ‘Africa’s Hitler’, National Post, 1 April 2008

(2) Heroic return for Zimbabwe’s opposition leader,, 28 March 2008

(3) Mugabe hoping to side-step Mbeki and Annan , ioL, 24 July 2005

(4) Abroad at Home; A Regime Of Thugs, New York Times, 5 May 2001

(5) Britain prepares £1bn-a-year package to aid Zimbabwe, Guardian, 3 April 2008

(6) Britain prepares £1bn-a-year package to aid Zimbabwe, Guardian, 3 April 2008

(7) Britain prepares £1bn-a-year package to aid Zimbabwe, Guardian, 3 April 2008

(8) The Battle over Zimbabwe’s Future, Global Research, 13 April 2007

(9) The Battle over Zimbabwe’s Future, Global Research, 13 April 2007

(10) ‘This time, Bob, it’s personal’, by Barrie Collins, 22 February 2002

(11) The Battle over Zimbabwe’s Future, Global Research, 13 April 2007

(12) The Battle over Zimbabwe’s Future, Global Research, 13 April 2007

(13) US reveals its efforts to topple Mugabe regime, Guardian, 6 April 2007

(14) Sanctions, which sanctions?, New African, May 2007

(15) ‘This time, Bob, it’s personal’, by Barrie Collins, 22 February 2002

(16) Trashing Mugabe, by Josie Appleton, 25 July 2005

(17) See Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett Condemns Mugabe Goverment

(18) Zimbabwe: talking up a revolution, by David Chandler, 22 April 2007

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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