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.

7 thoughts on “What we don’t see in the coverage on Zimbabwe

  1. Fair points. Much of the coverage is simplistic. The last point in particular is relevant. British perspectives in particular infantilise Zimbabwe (but we gave you everything!), and this affects much media coverage. The question that is never considered is why do so many willingly vote for Mugabe?

    I still think he should be denounced though!

  2. Agreed. Although I’ve been more impressed with the UK coverage in the last couple of days (see this in The Times for example:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article4193382.ece

    “President Mugabe has not acted alone in bringing Zimbabwe to its knees.

    He has a band of willing accomplices, many of whom fought alongside him in the guerrilla war against white rule and have benefited enormously from his time in power.”

    and our government is analysing likewise:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article4193382.ece

    “The US and Britain today led international condemnation of Zimbabwe by urging countries not to recognise Robert Mugabe’s ‘criminal and discredited cabal’.”

  3. Moi stepped down from office, but he wasn’t intending to step down from power completely- it was quite shocking at the time that the election wasn’t rigged enough to prevent Kibaki from winning.

    It seems to me that in recent years anyway, democratic transitions in Africa tend to require some surprising shock to the existing power structure, rather than some gradual process of change. Kenya was one, South Africa and Nigeria are others. Whether the transition is sustainable depends on things like whether strong democracies have been built from within.

  4. Good points, and good to note that the leadership is more than Mugabe, but a crooked ruling class. It is wrong, though, to assume that Mugabe’s departure will automatically eliminate his allies.

    The succession battle within Zanu-PF over the past few years suggests that a few party leaders nurse presidential ambitions of their own, and seem to think they have an independent support base.

    While the ruling class may all be threatened by the MDC, that does not mean that Mugabe needn’t fear dissension in his ranks.

  5. That this is partly because White rulers did not redistribute land etc.. is somewhat beside the point.

    Yes, it played to Mugabe’s rethoric, but his ruinous policies are color blind.

    His struggle is not one for racial redress, only one to perpetuate himself and his acolytes in power.

    And behind every strong man there is a strong woman…

  6. It is quite difficult to draw any analogy between pre-Velvet- a and pre-Orange- -revolution situations and one currently in Zimbabwe. As far as I know, CEE was in its time far more developed in almost every sense than Zimbabwe now (well, I do know situation in Czechoslovakia as I am Slovak and I was following Ukrainian revolution quite closely, but Zimbabwe I know only from scarce press coverage and Internet sources)

  7. “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.”

    For all his other faults, Pinochet managed to step aside when his time came — first by allowing political parties and then through a popular referendum. It may be more difficult for rump democracies (that are used to rigging elections) to change, but that too has happened in the recent past (think Mexico) under less authoritarian circumstances…