January 25, 2003

Mugabe may be unpleasant but he is not the problem

Remember, Lord Copper reminds his correspondent, dispatched by the Daily Beast in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop to a conflict in an African country of which we know little, “that the Patriots are in the right and are going to win. A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colourful entry into the capital. That is the Beast policy for the war.”

On these pages in October last year, I warned that Robert Mugabe might be pursuing a calculated policy of killing, starving or expelling the minority Ndebele tribe in Zimbabwe. The journalist Peter Oborne’s powerful recent Channel 4 documentary, Centre For Policy Studies pamphlet A Moral Duty to Act There, and Spectator article seem to confirm it. I see no need to repeat these warnings.

My purpose now is different: it is to warn against the idea that sub-Saharan African politics is usefully approached by the identification of heroes and villains, the singling out of particular tyrants, and the underlying assumption that better leaders are somewhere in the wings, waiting to be carried in aloft on the shoulders of the grateful African masses, if only we in the West would first help to topple the tyrant.

I do not mean that we should be careless about what happens in Africa or suppose ourselves without influence. Of course the England cricket team should not go to Zimbabwe, but the case for steering clear does not need to be made in terms of political science: it is simply a matter of good taste. Of course the decision by the Government of France to entertain Mugabe in Paris is a disgrace and for the French to ingratiate themselves with this doomed leader cannot be right. But it is not even clever. We British should kick the habit of assuming that France’s foreign policy is so devilishly and selfishly effective. We do much better out of our former empire in Africa than do the French out of theirs. For reasons mostly of control-freakery and pride, they keep entangling themselves in expensive and futile commitments in worthless places, and at the moment are no doubt hopping mad that four African countries, three of them francophone and one formerly Portuguese — Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique — have been moving towards the Anglo-Saxon sphere of influence. I detect more than a hint of yah-boo-sucks in President Chirac’s two-fingered salute over Mugabe. But it will not help Mugabe, who is not long for this world, and it will not help the French, who will not be high on the calling list of whoever in Harare succeeds him. Our best response is a Gallic shrug and a word in BAE Systems’ ear that the MoD contract is safe from French competition after all. Britain has a reasonably good record of not taking too much notice when the French play silly buggers in Africa. Let them pay for as many cultural institutes in Ouagadougou as they like, subsidise arms sales in Chad as heavily as the French taxpayer will bear, and sell a few Peugeots at a loss in Burkina Faso, but as Paris does notice, we British often win quietly in the end.

And in winning, we can help Africa as well as ourselves. My argument is not against the identification of better and worse individuals and causes in Africa, nor against the reasonably subtle use of influence to boost the better or discourage the worse. It is against the Lord Copper-ish assumption that these men and causes can be simply or unambiguously identified, or crudely promoted. There is not in Zimbabwe a good party and a bad party, and the battle, if a battle comes, will not be decisive.

We should acknowledge five unpalatable truths:

Mugabe is not particularly unpopular with his people. Taking the Zimbabwean electorate as a whole (up to a third of whom, for mostly tribal reasons, are simply not available to Mugabe as potential supporters) Mugabe probably enjoys broadly the level of support commanded in Britain by Tony Blair — 35 to 40 per cent. Within the majority Mashona tribe he probably has a majority. In the rural areas of Mashonaland (much of the country) he undoubtedly has a majority. He would probably not have won the last election without intimidation and cheating, but he might not have lost by much.

His policy of grabbing land from white settlers is not unpopular. The white farmers’ plight is pitiful and their treatment disgraceful, but do not forget the origins of this dispute. Within the lifetimes of the parents or grandparents of many Times readers, nearly all the best land of the Mashona people — thousands of square miles — was seized from them without compensation. They really do consider it “their” land. Would you not? I am not talking of the practical imperatives — plainly it is better for all Zimbabwe’s peoples that efficient white farmers stay in place — but of popular feeling among the Mashona.

Mugabe’s atrocious human rights abuses are not, in the eyes of most of his followers, their biggest worry about his leadership; famine and economic failure are. Many African people do not have our British sensitivities about brutal behaviour by a leader, so long as they think him to be admirable, successful and on their side. What they will not forgive is failure or incompetence. In domestic political terms Mugabe needs desperately to excuse the failure of his governance, not the splitting of a few thousand Ndebele heads.

The land issue and persecution of unpopular minority tribes are a useful political distraction from this failure. So is British grandstanding against his regime. This is not surprising. If you target people with sanctions you help a leader to make his case that their hardship is your fault, not his.

There is disappointingly thin evidence of any potential mass-membership, cross-tribal political movement available to take over from Mugabe, or of the leaders who might command it, or of any manifesto with unpartisan appeal which they might hold out to the voters. A number of people to whom I have spoken are venomous about Mugabe but lukewarm about Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC.

Cometh the hour, perhaps, cometh the man, and Tsvangarai might grow into leadership, but the election results map of the last election makes disturbing viewing. Mostly, Mashonaland supported Mugabe and Matabeleland supported Tsvangirai. This would not be an auspicious start for the government of national unity which would be needed to haul Zimbabwe out of the ditch. I doubt an outright win for an opposition party would be in Zimbabwe’s best interest. Nor should we expect of a new Zanu (PF)-based coalition, shorn of Mugabe, that it would return seized land to white farmers.

In short, it is regrettably likely that many of the things for which we in Britain despise Robert Mugabe are the last things on which he can still count when he wants a rousing cheer at public rallies: kicking white settlers; kicking minority tribes; and blaming the country’s woes on the big British-American world trying to push Zimbabwe around. The movement to replace him, if or when such a thing ever gains momentum, will not be pro-white settler, will not be pro-Ndebele, and will not be impressed to hear the new leader praised by Tony Blair.

It follows, and it is painful to have to put it this way, that Zimbabwe’s problem is not Mugabe. Zimbabwe’s problem is Zimbabweans, and, more specifically, the overwhelming majority Mashona tribe.

Leadership might help in finding a way out, but democracy alone will not: indeed, popular pressure is among the causes of the present shambles, not the solution to it. Though I admire Mr Oborne’s motives and respect his research, his recommendations (which are not far from those of the British Conservative Party and really amount to economic sanctions, ministerial vilification of Mugabe, and a series of hefty kicks in the pants from the outside world) look to me problematical; and the wait-and-see way in which President Mbeki of South Africa is handling his embarrassing northern neighbour is, if unimpressive, more defensible than Oborne allows.

Mugabe needs an escape hatch. How long ago Augusto Pinochet’s absurd detention in the Home Counties now seems. I remember arguing then that in an imperfect world where international law was incomplete, the forces of civilisation were well served by the provision of refuge for toppled tyrants. I argue the same in the case of Slobodan Milosevic. I thought I heard Tony Blair answer these arguments with a ringing declaration that in the New World Order there should be no escape for the wicked.

Funny, then, that earlier this week I seemed to hear the Prime Minister, quizzed by senior MPs and asked if he agreed with the US Administration that an escape route might be offered to Saddam, reply that it would be “great” (his word) if this could happen.

Ah, but that was now and this was then, and as Paul Flynn, MP, reminds us: “Only the future is certain. The past is always changing.”

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