What we don’t see in the coverage on Zimbabwe

The sad news of Tsvangirai’s departure from the Zimbabwe poll is all over the newspapers and blogosphere this morning. Zimbabwe indeed loses today.

Some careful thought needs to go into the next move. I am no Zimbabwe expert. But my experience with other cases suggest a few thoughts and opinions that I seldom see in all the press coverage:

  • Zimbabwe is not ruled by Mugabe alone–a single man who can be pressured to step down or be bought off. It is run by a cabal. A cabal of businessmen, politicians, and military men. Their days are numbered if Mugabe goes, and they will do anything necessary to keep him in power. If the international community wants a peaceful transition from power, it needs to consider how to buy off or protect the thugs surrounding Mugabe, as well as Mugabe himself. Otherwise, prepare for a fight.

  • Strongmen like Mugabe, in Africa or not, almost never leave power democratically. In fact, I can’t think of any examples offhand. Transitions to new leaders and new parties usually occur only after the strong man elects to stand down (or dies). Think Moi in Kenya. Tsvangirai undoubtedly knows his African history, and might think that the best he can do is wait for Mugabe to step aside–an act that may be speeded by recent events. Or so we hope.

  • Peaceful democratic transitions almost never happen quickly, let alone in a single election cycle.

  • There’s a school of thought with a simple proposition: strong democracies are created within. Think the Velvet and Orange Revolutions, for the most glorious examples. By this account, the most the international community can do is to support these popular movements (and their leaders, like Tsvangirai). How to do so effectively, I don’t know. Nor, it seems, does anyone else. Iraq has illustrated that external armed regime change is no simple thing. It’s also naive, I believe, to think that righteous indignation from the press and foreign offices is appropriate, effective, or enough. Yet it seems to be all we’re doing, and all we’re after. Some careful and long term thinking, by people who know the region well, is urgently required.

  • We have short memories. Mugabe’s rise to power, his land seizures, and his domestic popularity are due in no small part to the West’s (especially Britain’s) unwillingness to end colonialism; unwillingness to end white supremacy after the supremacists ended colonialism; and unwillingness to effectively fund land redistribution after revolutionaries valiantly ended white supremacy. That was less than thirty years ago. Little surprise our moral outrage counts for little in the region.

These views are not necessarily the correct ones. Their absence from the debate, however, is conspicuous.