Zimbabwe’s Dilemmas


Zim: A chance no one can take

If donor agencies now choose to withhold aid from the troubled country, it could turn into another Somalia

Has the time come for international donors to rethink their position on Zimbabwe? Western governments have been urged to give the unity deal the benefit of the doubt by the Elders, a group of eminent leaders including Nelson Mandela and former UN secretary general Kofi Annan. Their chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said recently: “Now is not the time for donors to take a ‘wait and see’ approach. This is the best chance Zimbabweans have had for peace and prosperity in decades.” When you consider how implacable a Mugabe critic Tutu has been over the years, his call for donor help despite the Zimbabwe tyrant’s intransigence is particularly telling.
Zimbabwe’s opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has admitted to his party that the fragile government of national unity he joined three months ago against the will of some of his colleagues has proved a failure so far, although he is said to believe privately that the inclusive government should continue in the hope that Robert Mugabe and his cronies may yet be persuaded (perhaps by SA president Jacob Zuma) to co-operate. Publicly, Tsvangirai is warning his supporters to brace themselves for elections.
Critics of the controversial unity pact argue that Robert Mugabe’s motives have always been distinctly suspect. He has continued to call the shots in Harare, forcing his rival Morgan Tsvangirai to concede too much ground and haplessly legitimise a democratically defeated dictator. Because Mugabe is still in control of key ministries, still detaining political opponents and still seizing white farms, a policy of stick rather than carrot is still believed by many to be the international community’s best call.
But – if we assume that the world’s concern is primarily for the suffering of Zimbabweans – is the continued aid stand-off advisable in the country’s precarious circumstances? The opposition MDC might pay a high political price for the failure of the government of national unity. If further blood is shed in the wake of a collapsed unity deal (given that we know how violently Mugabe fights elections) will the international community eventually rue its decision to ignore Tsvangirai’s increasingly desperate pleas for funding, not least because donor states may be accused down the line of inconsistency in respect of their earlier decision to back to the hilt a flawed coalition in Kenya on the basis of peace at any price?
In entering a unity pact with the indomitable Robert Mugabe last February, Tsvangirai chose the politics of co-operation over continued confrontation – and who is to say with certainty that he was wrong? Just as Barack Obama hopes to “unclench” the fist that has symbolized recently aggressive Iranian relations with the USA, Tsvangirai opted for emotional intelligence over war-mongering, agreeing to work in exasperating conditions with the country’s long-time president in what he believes to be the best interests of Zimbabweans.
By treating Mugabe with obvious respect despite the criticism such a conciliatory stance evoked, Tsvangirai acknowledged the futility of humiliating a proud though dangerous relic of the liberation era – in itself possibly a constructive manipulation of an ageing man who craves recognition for what he sees as his “sacrifice and suffering” in Zimbabwe. Tsvangirai’s regard for Mugabe might, of course, spur the ruthless dictator on to further political tricks – that is certainly a possibility for a man who thrives on vengeance and victory – but Tsvangirai’s approach might equally be the only feasible way towards a fraught but better future.
Although the wily Mugabe may be planning to bamboozle his new prime minister and erode opposition gains by discrediting Tsvangirai’s leadership – reminding us of the sad fate of an earlier politician’s alliance with Comrade Bob during the 80s – the government of national unity has already brought a degree of stability to a dying nation by reducing hyperinflation, restoring optimism among the citizenry and rekindling private investor interest. However imperfectly, it may well offer, as the Elders say, the best prospect of a peaceful transition from the absolute disaster of Mugabe’s dictatorship – given that no better solution has been forthcoming from the West.
Mugabe is 85 years old and will not live forever (though his mother died when she was almost 100). But those propping up the president, including his blood-stained generals, are undoubtedly joined at the hip with him: his henchmen will obviously resist changes that are against their own interests. To insist that Mugabe is himself the critical impediment to donor funding – as was implied recently by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – is presumably to assume that Mugabe’s Zanu-PF cronies will jump ship as soon as he sinks, a metaphorically pleasing but possibly delusional idea. Ditto the forlorn hope that Mugabe may yet agree to an exit strategy regardless of his well-known obsession with the fate of Liberia’s imprisoned Charles Taylor, who was granted exile to Nigeria in 2003 only to be arrested two-and-a-half years later and brought to trial. Mugabe is not going to retire if he thinks he will end up facing international justice – is he?
Despite the fact that some of civil society’s network of NGOs are still banned from Zimbabwe, there are ways in which international donors can inject funding directly into vital arteries such as the country’s education and health systems – not to mention the collapsed sewerage system that will lead to another cholera outbreak if not repaired before the next rainy season. By speeding up reconstruction in Zimbabwe through targeted development projects designed to restore, for example, the country’s water and electricity grids, Western donors can begin (in addition to providing ongoing humanitarian aid) to rescue Zimbabweans while simultaneously strengthening the MDC – but without bankrolling the Mugabe regime much more than existing remittances from exiled Zimbabweans around the world are already helping inadvertently to keep him in office.
International intervention in Zimbabwe’s recent cholera crisis went straight into the country’s health system. A sizeable donation from Norway last month was earmarked for health and education via non-government agencies. Explaining his country’s decision to increase its aid to Zimbabwe, Norwegian minister for international development Erik Solheim said: “When people who have risked their lives for democracy in Zimbabwe ask us to provide help, we have an obligation to do so. If we fail to support those who are fighting for change now, Zimbabwe could become a new Somalia. That is a chance neither Zimbabwe nor the rest of the world can take.”


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