Zimbabwe: whose crisis is it anyway?

There can be no democratic solution until the struggle to oust Mugabe is separated from the moral posturing of the international community.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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There are not one but two Zimbabwe crises, which are becoming confused in the endless heated discussions about what should be done.

One is the local political crisis within Zimbabwe itself, as the dictatorial regime of Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF clings to power and suppresses the opposition. The other is the crisis of authority facing the Western-led international community, which is trying to use Zimbabwe as a cause around which to forge a new post-Iraq consensus. Mixing up these two crises, and internationalising Zimbabwe’s internal power struggle, can only make matters worse.

The local crisis within Zimbabwe has been headline world news for months, especially within the UK. Since Zanu-PF lost the parliamentary elections and the first round of the presidential contest in March, the Mugabe regime has stepped up its use of brutality and electoral fraud in the face of mounting international condemnation. In response, Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has withdrawn from the presidential run-off against Mugabe, taken refuge in the Dutch embassy in Harare, and called on the United Nations to stop the ‘genocide’ in Zimbabwe. Western commentators and statesmen, meanwhile, have begun to talk darkly about ‘another Rwanda’.

Despite this rhetoric, there is no evidence of anything like genocide in Zimbabwe today. The violence to date, which is claimed to have left up to 80 MDC supporters dead, seems to have more in common with other recent African political crises that have not attracted the same degree of international publicity or concern – for example, the post-election violence in Kenya earlier this year. Lazy Western observers are quick to draw inappropriate parallels with the 1994 massacres in Rwanda whenever they want to conjure up images of the ‘Dark Continent’. A more telling comparison might ask why Zimbabwe is the focus of such international heat while the current Rwandan government, which also has a highly dubious attitude to human rights and its political opponents, quietly remains a close ally of the USA and Britain.

Zimbabwe has become the big story because its internal affairs have become caught up in the wider crisis of the international community. The fallout from the disastrous US-led invasion of Iraq has left the Western powers divided and discredited, the international authority of America and Britain in tatters. Seeking a focus around which to forge a new moral consensus, many in the West have lit upon the obnoxious Mugabe as a suitable target.

As the New Labour minister Lord Malloch-Brown says, ‘We don’t want it to be Zimbabwe versus Britain, it’s Zimbabwe versus the world’. At a time when international unity is notable by its absence on big issues ranging from climate change to the Iranian Bomb, they have seized upon Zimbabwe as one small corner of the globe about which much of the world can apparently speak with one voice. But when everybody seems to be agreeing with one another and saying the same thing, it is all the more important to ask some questions.

Zimbabwe has been turned into a platform where many in the West hope to rehabilitate the politics of international intervention post-Iraq. In the 1990s, with the old politics of both left and right in disarray, interventionists of every stripe sought a new moral mission by demanding and supporting military action in Bosnia and then Kosovo. The Iraq debacle derailed that bandwagon. Ever since, the laptop bombardiers have been on a sort of world tour seeking out crises around which they might re-galvanise the moral case for intervention, from Burma through Darfur and now Zimbabwe.

The sun has long since set on the British Empire, but Britain still leads the world in demanding action on Zimbabwe, the former colony of Rhodesia. New Labour prime minister Gordon Brown may not be able to get the support of two men and a dog in domestic politics, but in condemning the Zimbabwean government he can command international authority – and, he hopes, overcome Mugabe’s description of him as a ‘tiny dot in the world’.

Since Tsvangirai’s withdrawal from the presidential poll, more and more of the interventionist writers and politicians have been coming back out of the closet, suggesting that military action may be the only way to resolve the crisis there. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has backed the idea. Lord Paddy Ashdown now says that military intervention must be considered because ‘the situation in Zimbabwe could deteriorate to a point where genocide could be a possible outcome – something that looks like [another] Rwanda’. We are all supposed to nod along gravely with this, rather than point out that, as the former EU High Representative who ruled post-war Bosnia as an effective dictator under international military occupation, Lord Ashdown is hardly an advert for the democratic consequences of intervention.

Yet no sooner have they floated the need for military intervention than statesmen are all forced to admit that it is impractical for Britain to do any such thing. It is just a pose, an exercise in moral posturing. Britain is so lacking in authority and clout, so nervous of being accused of colonialism by other Africans, that Brown would not dare to attack Zimbabwe. It would not take much to roll over Mugabe’s ragtag armed forces, as indeed it didn’t with Saddam Hussein’s, but what Western leader would chance it after Iraq? The West today seems unable even to organise or arm Mugabe’s opponents, as it would have done to dispose of an unwanted dictator in the Third World not so long ago.

The same crisis of international authority that leads Western leaders to target Mugabe also prevents them pulling the trigger. So a campaign that was supposed to make Brown and Co look strong and resolute instead risks making them look impotent – again. We end up with almost the worst of all worlds – political intervention without purpose, interference without ends.

Yet, as Brendan O’Neill argued on spiked this week, Britain and the West still have the power to make matters worse for those on the receiving end (see Disenfranchising the people of Zimbabwe). Their international campaign has proved to be Mugabe’s last card, helping to rally what support he retains against the spectre of the colonial powers. His latest poster, depicting George W Bush, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Tsvangirai all as members of ‘The Losers Club’, shows the use he is making of their efforts. Mugabe has responded to international pressure by becoming more intransigent, his will to hang on to power no doubt strengthened by Western threats of a war crimes trial after he is deposed.

Western intervention has also helped to derail the opposition within Zimbabwe. Tsvangirai’s tactical withdrawal from the presidential poll was fair enough – nobody need feel obliged to contest bent elections. The trouble is that this tactic reflects a broader strategic orientation towards seeing the international community as the solution to Zimbabwe’s problems. Under pressure from Mugabe’s regime and seemingly unable or unwilling to mobilise a mass movement, the MDC has called on the West to bring down the regime for it, with predictably little result. The result of demobilising the opposition in the face of Mugabe’s offensive, while waiting in vain for the Western cavalry to ride to rescue, is to leave Tsvangirai – whom the world claims as the legitimate president-in-waiting – holed up in a European embassy accused of being a foreign stooge.

And what if the international diplomatic campaign against Zimbabwe were to succeed in pressing the other southern African states to help oust Mugabe? Under these circumstances, the best possible outcome might be a new coalition government between the Zanu-PF, the military, and the MDC. Fair enough if all you want is to see the back of one tyrant. But what would that have to do with bringing democracy to Zimbabwe? The more the onus is on outside actors to settle the crisis, the less the Zimbabwean people can have their destinies in their own hands.

The MDC claims that Mugabe has declared ‘war’. If that is so, then in the end the Zimbabwean opposition is going to have to fight a war or wave the white flag. What Zimbabwe needs is a real, active movement for democratic change. That is how worthwhile change happens. Iraq remains the answer to those who imagine that foreign armies and sanctions can ‘liberate’ a people on their behalf.

It seems unlikely there can be a democratic settlement for Zimbabwe until the two crises are separated. There is no international solution to Zimbabwe’s political crisis, and a campaign against Mugabe is not going to resolve the West’s crisis of authority and unity. The best we can do to help is by opposing further foreign intervention, and showing our solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe in a struggle for freedom.

We have come a long way since Cecil Rhodes, founder of the British colony that is now Zimbabwe, announced in 1887 that ‘the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise’. Yet many still seem to find it hard to accept that Africans can and must sort out their own problems. After all, it was a popular liberation struggle that brought down the autocratic racist regime of Ian Smith 30 years ago. Do we really believe that no African can do now what Mugabe did then?

Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill argued that Western interference has disenfranchised the people of Zimbabwe. Previously, he said that Mugabe’s Zimbabwe has been turned 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 saw the enlistment of African Union troops in Darfur as blacked-up Western intervention. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

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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