Disenfranchising the people of Zimbabwe

Morgan Tsvangirai’s withdrawal from the presidential run-off is understandable – but it exposes the undemocratic dynamic to Western interference.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Morgan Tsvangirai’s decision to pull out of the second round of Zimbabwe’s presidential election is entirely understandable. Having been arrested five times over the past three months – and having watched as supporters of his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were roughed up, thrown in jail, and prevented from speaking freely or gathering openly – Tsvangirai clearly feels that the election will be unfair, illegitimate and, for him at least, unwinnable. Robert Mugabe and his henchmen, who have attacked and even murdered MDC campaigners, have made it near impossible for a free and fair election to take place.

And yet the effective cancellation of the election, followed by Tsvangirai’s calls for the United Nations, the African Union and South Africa to intervene in order to prevent a ‘genocide’, also shows up the dangers of internationalising local conflicts. The events of the past 24 hours demonstrate that Western governments’ relentless exploitation of the Zimbabwe crisis has helped to disenfranchise the Zimbabwean people. Literally. The logic of Western pressure has made the MDC reliant on the favour and flattery of external forces, rather than on the grit and the votes of its own mass support base.

Commentators argue that external governments have ‘ignored’ Zimbabwe for too long. The problem is precisely the opposite: there has been too much interference. Over the past decade, American and European leaders cynically transformed Mugabe’s Zimbabwe into the West’s whipping boy in Africa, a ‘pariah state’ against which they could pontificate in order to demonstrate their seriousness about combating ‘evil’ in global affairs. Governments and institutions imposed economic sanctions on Zimbabwe, froze international loans, warned off foreign investors, denied Zimbabwean officials the right to travel freely around the world, and seriously discussed taking military action.

The impact of this singling out of Zimbabwe for economic and political punishment has been dire. Firstly, Western meddling has contributed enormously to Zimbabwe’s current economic crisis. 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’ (1). According to one critical author – Gregory Elich, author of Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem and the Pursuit of Profit – this economic collapse was in no small part caused by ‘Western financial restrictions, [which] made it nearly impossible for Zimbabwe to engage in normal international trade’ (2).

Secondly, Western interference has warped the political dynamic in Zimbabwe, and weakened the mass of the population. The transformation of Zimbabwe’s local clashes into an international morality play has made Mugabe more belligerent and intractable. Massively isolated by world opinion, and transformed into ‘the Hitler of Africa’, Mugabe has little to lose by way of international reputation in violently usurping the free and fair electoral process. Indeed, if anything, the borderline colonialist actions of Western governments have helped Mugabe – an old anti-colonial warrior – to shore up his support base in Zimbabwe. At the same time, Western intervention has led his opponents in the MDC to make an inexorable turn towards the international sphere over their own grassroots supporters. The West’s incessant and loud declarations about ‘saving Zimbabwe’ means the MDC is more likely to appeal to powerful institutions over here rather than harness the power of its millions of supporters over there.

Following the first presidential election at the end of March – which the MDC won, but not outright – Tsvangirai immediately left Zimbabwe and spent six weeks touring the world. He presented regional leaders in southern Africa with evidence that ‘Mugabe planned attacks on the opposition’, and then ‘embarked on an international tour to rally support for democracy in his country’ (3). Last year, the US State Department confirmed for the first time that it had sponsored ‘events’ in Zimbabwe aimed at ‘discrediting’ Mugabe, and it is reported that the MDC also receives financial backing and political direction from Britain, Germany, Holland and Denmark (4).

The logic of contemporary ‘humanitarian intervention’, which presents the international community as the saviour of beleaguered populations, is that opposition movements in the South often spend more time cultivating big backers in the West than leading, convincing or strengthening their own support base. The withdrawal of the MDC from the election – in order that, as one commentator says, the UN and others might ‘intervene to rescue Zimbabwe’s people’ (5) – is the logical conclusion to this process: people in Zimbabwe can no longer vote for ‘democratic change’, but rather must wait to be saved by outsiders.

Tsvangirai’s withdrawal from the presidential run-off does not only show that Mugabe’s Zanu-PF is jealously guarding its power by denigrating democracy. It also is a powerful metaphor for the impact of ‘humanitarian’ meddling in other state’s affairs, where millions of people have effectively been robbed of their vote, and have been turned overnight from active subjects who might vote or fight against their opponents into pathetic objects who must be ‘rescued’ by brave external observers. Zimbabwe shows that Western intervention always makes things worse: it has contributed to a dire economic crisis, entrenched political divisions, and helped to disenfranchise the Zimbabwean people. Mugabe might beat people up for ‘voting the wrong way’; now they won’t even have the choice to ‘vote the wrong way’.

Voting for the MDC under Mugabe may have been a very risky endeavour, but millions were prepared to take that risk. Now, instead, they have effectively been turned into the charges of powerful external actors. Between being harassed by Mugabe and rescued by the West – these must not be the only choices for the people of Zimbabwe.

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

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill said American and European governments have transformed Mugabe’s Zimbabwe into the West’s whipping boy in Africa. Chris Bickerton argued that Mugabe’s refusal to stand down was being used as a stick to beat Africa. In 2007, Western journalists spoke of a revolution in Zimbabwe, but David Chandler said the picture on the ground was more one of disillusionment and resignation. Philip Cunliffe looked at what it means for Darfur to have been colonised by ‘peacekeepers’. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

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

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

(3) Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai returns to Zimbabwe, says he feels safe, International Herald Tribune, 24 May 2008

(4) See Zimbabwe and the new Cowardly Colonialism, by Brendan O’Neill

(5) From Terror to Hunger, Washington Post, 5 June 2008

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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