Are African leaders ostriches with their heads buried deep into the sand such that they cannot see the economic and political meltdown in Zimbabwe? What lies in the silent- diplomacy Pandora box over Mugabe? Why are African leaders enjoying the economic and political soap opera that Mugabe is staging in Zimbabwe?
African leaders are not ostriches. The basic reason is that most African incumbent governments are facing political showdowns from opposition parties. When opposition takeover threats reach boiling point, African leaders would play Mugabe’s political survival card. To this end, African leaders are justified not to tell Mugabe off as this would mean they are supporting opposition parties, that are giving them headache in their own backyards. Mugabe is therefore their hero not because of his ill-conceived and ill-timed land reform programme but because he has taught them how to survive political tornadoes.
Mugabeism is a highly infectious but curable disease that is fast spreading across the African continent. A good number of incumbent African governments have already been infected with it. How do we explain the barring of Nigeria’s Atiku Abubakar from contesting the forthcoming presidential elections? What about the outlawing of independent candidates and the frequent beating of Civil United Front supporters in Zanzibar by Tanzanian Mainland Government political agents? What about recent besieging and terrorising of the sitting court and snatching away of bailed criminal suspects by government-sponsored ninja-like thugs in Uganda? What about the recent stopping of Muluzi, former President of Malawi, from holding a political rally by the military; the Kenya government’s foot-dragging over minimum constitutional reforms; the butchering of more than 120 anti-government demonstrators in Guinea and the broad daylight stealing of the presidential election for Eyademma in Togo by the military?
Mugabeism has existed since the post-independence era when Africa’s big men were at the helm of power. The Mugabeism of the first generation of African leaders is however understandable given that the one-party system of government encouraged it. With the advent of democracy in Africa in the 1990s, one would not have expected brutal autocratic regimes to rear their ugly heads again in Africa. We should therefore be dead worried about what is happening in Zimbabwe. It has a huge potential of reversing the democratic fortunes that have been achieved in most African countries. The disturbing gospel that Mugabe’s repressive regime is preaching to other African leaders is that the reign of terror is still possible even in the democratic dispensation. Mugabe has brought to the fore the otherwise underground crackdown on opposition parties and dissenting views that is commonplace in most African countries. He has taught African leaders that it is no longer shameful to beat up opposition figures and parade them with swollen faces before the whole world! It is therefore naïve to expect African leaders to take a tough stance against Mugabe while they are enjoying the political survival lessons that are emerging from there. The best they can do is to save their faces by advancing an embarrassing silent-diplomacy and old-fashioned sovereign-state argument.
That the land inequality between natives and non-natives was severe in Zimbabwe is not disputable. What is disputable, and discredits the whole land reform programme, is the timing, the manner and political circumstances under which it was implemented. Mugabe knew that his political ship was sinking and had to find a quick solution. He knew that the bulk of cultivable was in the hands of white commercial farmers and that the majority of the people were still nurturing the hatred against whites, through years of colonialism. Given this background, Mugabe just needed some political propaganda that could convince a few souls that white farmers wanted to recolonise Zimbabwe through their support of Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Mugabe’s survival tricks are an eye opener to most African leaders whose governments are almost illegitimate. It is an open secret that in Africa, it is almost impossible for an incumbent president to lose an election. Only two incumbent presidents in Africa, Dr Kamuzu Banda of Malawi and Dr Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia lost presidential elections as incumbents. Elections are rigged either through the use of ghost voters or stolen through the use of public resources during campaigns to buy off opposition supporters. Everyone remembers the embarrassing confessions of Dumbo Lemani of Malawi and Frederick Chiluba of Zambia. These two political stalwarts confessed how their parties rigged the election for their candidate who eventually ‘won’ the election.
A disproportionate proportion of the African electorate belong to the opposition. So how do we expect leaders with very limited mandate to support Zimbabwe’s opposition that Mugabe is brutalising and terrorising while their own opposition are lurking around to take over government? This is why African leaders are hiding behind quiet diplomacy.
Traditionally, our leaders have not been bold enough to find African solutions for African problems. They wait for donors to sort out African problems. How do we expect outsiders who have little knowledge of the root causes of Africa’s economic and political problems to find a solution for us? When we have floods, we send distress signals to the West for food relief instead of mobilising our own resources. If genocide is happening in Darfur, we’re holding conferences that yield no tangible solution, then kneel before the international community for a solution. If the international community is not forthcoming, we blame them for starvation or genocide. Come on African Leaders! This is the twenty first century! Let’s get the hell out of the cocoon of denials and irresponsibility and learn to find African solutions for African problems.
The East, especially China, shares the blame for the spread of Mugabeism in Africa. The West was quick to impose travel bans and freezing of assets of top government officials of Zimbabwe not because the political and economic crisis is victimising Zimbabwean but because white farmers were involved. If the Mugabe mania was only targeted at Zimbabweans, the West would have dilly-dallied on imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe. China is increasingly supporting and doing business with corrupt and repressive regimes in Africa. Its huge appetite for natural resources, which can be sourced from Africa at rock-bottom prices, has forced it to disregard poor human rights record of its bedfellows. Of course, China does not want to play double standards by trying to remove a speck in the eyes of its buddies before removing the log in its own eye. Put differently, China’s human rights record is horrible. But that is beside the point. The point is that the West knows that China is promoting Mugabeism but they cannot take a tough stance against it because of self interest. Rich countries have a vested interest in China’s booming economy! Most of high-tax paying corporations have relocated to China to take advantage of cheap labour remunerated at near-slave wages!
By Tchaka Ndhlovu PhD
Economist who works in Tanzania.
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