Despot not beyond influence
Every effort should be made to bring a vain man back from the brink, not for him, but for his exhausted and starving people
A creative new approach to the deepening crisis in Zimbabwe may yet bring peace to a long-troubled country. But it will require bold diplomacy and perhaps a carrot instead of the present mix of Western sticks – introduced in the hope of beating Robert Mugabe but instead propping up his propaganda machine – plus Africa’s ill-conceived collusion. With Mugabe’s own rural people daily paying an appalling price for their rejected leader’s rage, now is not the time to quibble about who in the world should deal with Zimbabwe’s president.
The successful outcome to new, admittedly radical diplomacy will almost certainly require Britain’s participation as the principal negotiator, presumably in alliance with the SADC, since Mugabe is adamant that his quarrel is with the former colonial power rather than with the United Nations or the USA.
While the British – who have been trying to shake off the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe problem for nearly half a century – will doubtless still be hoping for an African-inspired or electoral solution, nothing but further suffering is likely to come from the country’s run-off on March 27. No matter how loudly the world shouts at Thabo Mbeki to solve the crisis in Zimbabwe, he is unable to do so for the simple reason (apart from the South African president’s well-known reservations about the MDC) that Mugabe will not listen to him. Having succeeded in putting in place measures which have proved unequivocally that the MDC won Zimbabwe’s recent elections, Mbeki has achieved all that seems possible from Africa in the complex circumstances surrounding an octogenerian leader with a grudge against a European country he once idolised and might defer to again, assuming the British can hold their noses long enough to treat Mugabe with respect.
The thought of according a despised dictator sufficient respectability for negotiations to occur may well be too abhorrent to contemplate in the West despite the tragic consequences of international diplomatic inaction, yet countries like Britain would do well to factor in the possibility that the cruelty Mugabe and his generals are currently unleashing may continue beyond the run-off. Remember that this is the man who employed brutalised North Korean soldiers to wipe out his opposition in their thousands three decades ago (partly because British officers were at the time embedded in Zimbabwe’s army in a post-independence military training agreement between the two countries that made it difficult for Mugabe to use his own troops in the carnage).
Although observers often cite Mugabe’s advanced age as a reason to expect imminent change, it is unrealistic to rely on the Grim Reaper when we know that the Zimbabwe president’s mother died in her late 90s. It is also simplistic to assume that Mugabe’s eventual death will in itself solve Zimbabwe’s ills: little, if any, progress by way of good governance will come exclusively from Zanu-PF, which will remain a corrupt organisation with an overwhelming history of violence regardless of the individual victor emerging from its potentially deadly succession struggle.
Even if Mugabe were off the scene, his blood-stained generals are not going to step aside for any leader whose post-liberation record does not include human rights abuse. Furthermore, the threat of international justice widely assumed to be awaiting both Mugabe and some of his military men for their part in the 1980s slaughter known as Gukurahundi may well be diluted by the moral confusion inherent in the Queen of England giving Zimbabwe’s premier an honorary knighthood after his personal militia had killed up to 20 000 people in Matabeleland.
Apart from such spectacular hypocrisy, British involvement in Zimbabwean politics – leaving aside the excesses of colonialism itself – has been central to the conflict for over 40 years, most notably when the colonial power refused to act against a white racist coup in 1965. Britain’s failure to respond honourably towards nationalist aspirations back then triggered the country’s bloody 15-year bush war. Subsequently, after imposing racial parliamentary quotas and a 10-year moratorium on land reform at independence, the British government – and to a lesser extent the USA – failed to fully finance land buyouts as expected.
For these reasons, if not for the sake of ordinary Zimbabweans, it behoves Britain to step into the fray with constructive intent at this late and reckless stage in Mugabe’s tyranny, not because it is the former colonial power’s legal responsibility to come to the rescue but because the British are morally involved, whether they like it or not.
While the country’s economic breakdown is undoubtedly Mugabe’s fault, he will neither admit it nor cooperate in a negotiated settlement unless Britain makes a move to heal what appears to be the political equivalent of a family rift. Underneath Mugabe’s public hatred of Blair and Brown is a private love for Mother England, born of the despot’s early colonial-era life in a Catholic mission run by the Anglo-Irish priest he adored. As old as he is, Mugabe is not beyond the influence of a firm but belatedly fair parent. Indeed, he may long to be stopped, as is often the case with wayward offspring.
The outrage expressed in South Africa as a result of Mbeki holding Mugabe’s hand (or, more likely, Mugabe clasping Mbeki’s paw gleefully) and in Britain on the occasions when Zimbabwe’s president shook hands with Blair’s foreign secretary and with heir to the throne Prince Charles (whom Mugabe knew personally, btw), as well as the silly spectre of a European official keeping both his hands behind his back lest Mugabe seize one of them during the controversial Lisbon summit late last year, overlooks the dangerous fact that Africa’s most daunting dictator is currently beyond the reach of international diplomacy. He has absolutely nothing left to lose as a result.
Every effort should be made to bring a vain man who undoubtedly cares about his legacy back from the brink, not because Mugabe deserves it but because his exhausted, starving people do. If the necessary diplomatic overtures from the former colonial power imply that Britain has erred in some of its dealings in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, so be it. As Amnesty International noted in a recent report, the West cannot expect to live in a fairer world if it is unwilling to admit its own mistakes.
Heidi Holland is the author of the bestselling book, Dinner With Mugabe.