Why Bob still garners support
African leaders would rather risk the harshest fall-out in Zimbabwe, than conspire with the West to topple Mugabe
Hardly a day passed last year without yet more bad news from Zimbabwe in the local media. Leaving aside the fact that nothing much changed politically despite all the huffing and puffing, Robert Mugabe also dominated headlines internationally throughout 2008, further damaging Africa’s tarnished reputation abroad. But it was the region’s collective failure to condemn a cruel dictator’s appalling human rights record even in the bleakest days of his tyranny that dealt the “dark” continent a lasting blow.
Although Afro-pessimism had flourished in the wake of dire reports from Darfur and Kenya, Zimbabwe’s crisis was deepening on a daily basis with no achievable solution in sight. Untold reams focusing on the continent’s shameful complicity with Mugabe lingered worryingly even in fair minds. South Africa’s post-apartheid relations with Britain, once a staunch ally, were never more strained.
Outrage at the idea of Africa supporting Mugabe was nothing new, of course. For years, the leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) had been implored by civil society and Western governments to ditch him. What became increasingly damaging to the continent’s global image in 2008, however, was Africa’s prevailing indifference to the plight of Zimbabweans due to its overriding determination not to back the partially Western-funded Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) despite the obvious support Mugabe’s opposition had gained at the polls.
Analysts everywhere were not only angered but baffled by SADC mediator Thabo Mbeki’s refusal to criticize Mugabe, let alone to act decisively against him, after Zimbabwe’s president turned electoral defeat in March to bogus victory on his own bloody terms three months later. Whether Mbeki’s derided “quiet diplomacy” was as much a miscalculation of Mugabe’s rigid personality as it was a deliberate political strategy on Mbeki’s part will be debated for years to come. Certainly, Mbeki’s much-lauded power-sharing brokerage proved a sham for the simple reason that Mugabe had never intended to share anything except empty titles with the MDC.
It is now obvious – though painful for a continent intent on sorting out its own problems – that Mugabe does not listen to anybody in Africa. While there are signs in some quarters of growing African impatience with the old man whose callous crisis is spilling into bordering countries in the form of xenophobic violence and cholera, there is still no indication of action from SADC or powerful neighbour South Africa against Zimbabwe’s dictator. Indeed, Mbeki’s successor Khalema Motlanthe has so far turned the same deaf ear and blind eye to Mugabe’s excesses.
One reason not often discussed in polite company is the regime change agenda championed by former British prime minister Tony Blair when he first came to office at the end of the Nineties. (The European Union traditionally takes its cue from Whitehall in respect of former British colonies, as does the US). It was no secret in the West in the run-up to the war in Iraq – and certainly very well-known in African leadership circles – that Britain planned to get rid of Mugabe. Blair said as much in the House of Commons. “It is in (the) interests (of Zimbabwe’s neighbours) not to support Mugabe and the Zimbabwe regime,” he told his colleagues after a trip to Abuja, “but to facilitate national reconciliation in the interests of changing the regime.” On that one afternoon in parliament, he used the term “regime change in Zimbabwe” seven times.
Mugabe remembers it well, and indeed continues to run his self-serving propaganda machinery on it. African leaders remember it, albeit passively as they have too much to lose to expose Western double-dealing in the direct way Mugabe calls hypocrisy. Regime change in the guise of democratic reform by Western countries may have lost its allure abroad, becoming an unfashionable topic of conversation in London over the past five years, but it is far from forgotten in the presidential palaces of Africa.
This is why few African leaders will support increasingly shrill British and American demands for Mugabe’s removal. They would rather face the harshest fall-out from Zimbabwe than conspire with the West to topple one of their own. While certainly not an admirable position for Africa to take in the face of human suffering, it is perhaps as understandable as Britain’s disinclination to acknowledge its problematic history in Zimbabwe despite Mugabe being so obviously hell-bent on point-scoring against Blair and Brown regardless of the human cost inside Zimbabwe. Almost everything Mugabe says makes reference to the now-discredited Western notion of regime change, including his recently mocked comments about “Brown’s cholera”, a skewed reference to the non-existent weapons of mass destruction that became so acute an embarrassment to Iraq’s invaders.
An eventual change of government in Britain might yet bring some acknowledgment of the consequences of Labour’s disastrous regime change aspirations in Zimbabwe, perhaps paving the way for a joint British/South African initiative towards sensible leadership in the crippled country through Britain’s active engagement with Zimbabwe’s president. Mugabe himself has said that the Tories comprehend the consequences of Britain’s colonial history better than Labour. But can Zimbabweans hang on in the faint hope that a Conservative government might take more responsibility for Mugabe’s rampage than Gordon Brown’s government has done? Clearly not.
While the full discussion in Pretoria with Britain’s Africa Minister Lord Malloch-Brown late last year has not been disclosed by the South African government except in so far as it concerned humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe, it ought to have included recognition of Blair’s blunder in glibly promoting regime change in Mugabe’s country.
Not that Mugabe isn’t to blame for what has happened in Zimbabwe – he is. But whereas Zimbabwe’s emotionally stunted despot is incapable of accepting responsibility for his actions, Britain’s leadership should be able to take the grown-up role in an escalating tragedy once Africa’s best efforts have failed.
Hopefully, we will see Mark Malloch-Brown return for more dialogue on Zimbabwe before long. Next time, though, he might consider stopping off in Harare to talk to Mugabe, who craves recognition from Britain above all else. The fact that Malloch-Brown is an eminent Briton as well as a lord – Mugabe having always been more inclined towards toffs than ordinary Brits – is a good start. He would, of course, have to treat the tyrant with the respect he does not deserve, a bitter pill for Britain to swallow. But is it really a diplomatic gulp too far if it helps save innocent lives in Zimbabwe?