Zimbabwe: Exorcising Congo’s Ghost

Posted in Africa | 27-Jan-04 | Author: Mvemba Dizolele

Every few years a new crisis breaks out in Africa when a dictator’s policies clash with western interests. Powerful countries are enraged at the audacity of the dictator to challenge their influence. They call for sanctions, insist on the tyrant’s removal and demand that democracy be established immediately. Strife and war quickly follow. With economic sanctions and military support for anti-government factions, eventually the dictator is either assassinated or exiled and the country is left bankrupt and volatile. Tens of thousands are usually left dead. In the end, the country must struggle for decades without even a semblance of democracy. The people starve for food and dignity, with or without the presence of humanitarian aid. Across the world headlines ask, “What’s the problem with Africa?”

Last month when Zimbabwe’s parliament voted 59 to 41 to withdraw from the Commonwealth, the course of the nation took a steep decline toward imminent collapse. In Zimbabwe the world is witnessing a déjà vu of the Congo disaster under Mobutu Sese Seko. While President Robert Mugabe scored a major victory, 12.6 million Zimbabweans emerged as huge losers. The infamous feud between Mugabe on one side and on the other side the Commonwealth’s secretary-general Don Mckinnon, the United Kingdom’s Tony Blair, Australia’s John Howard, and New Zealand’s Helen Clark has left Zimbabweans under an unbearable yoke. With its ineffective sanctions and empty rhetoric, the Commonwealth unwittingly dances to the tunes of Mugabe.

Tony Blair and his supporters failed Zimbabwe’s white farmers. Their lopsided diplomacy not only helped to precipitate the crisis, it made it impossible to scrutinize the Harare regime. Their lack of vigorous engagement allowed Mugabe free rein on a critical and potentially explosive land reform program. In order to be successful, land reform in Zimbabwe required continuous monitoring and the full backing of the international community until completion. Without this, the current predicament was guaranteed. In a move that further precipitates the crisis, the International Monetary Fund moved to expel Zimbabwe last month. This decision will only serve to empower Mugabe further.

More importantly, Tony Blair and his supporters failed the 12.6 million Zimbabweans who have been waiting for land reform for over 120 years. They lost their land and cattle in the 1880’s when Cecil Rhodes seized them for white settlers. Over the years, the United Kingdom has demonstrated little proactive leadership in Zimbabwe. Only after Ian Smith’s white minority government unilaterally declared independence in 1965 did the United Kingdom demand voting rights for the black majority. Even here, British leadership clearly instigated United Nations sanctions more to rile Ian Smith than to further the welfare of native blacks. Black Zimbabweans eventually came to believe that their rights would only be respected with their own independence and black majority rule. Although they gained black majority rule in 1980, their rights have yet to be fully respected.

The real issue today is the perpetual injustice Zimbabweans have endured through the loss of their lands, first to British settlers and now to Mugabe’s supporters. In 1980, then Prime Minister Mugabe promised his countrymen a sweeping land reform to redress the disparity. He did this with British support. The United Kingdom pledged to help finance the reform at the Lancaster House Conference in 1979, but cannily asked Zimbabwe to suspend official discussions for ten years after its independence. The British meant to maintain the economic status quo and promised to scout funds to finance the purchase of white farms for redistribution. While John Major’s government raised funds for this purpose, it is not clear what the Blair government did to meet this obligation.

In 2000, the Zimbabwean government initiated a fast-track land reform program that expropriated white farmers of their farms. The confiscated lands did not go the masses or to black farmers who helped manage commercial farms, but to local elites with little or no commercial farming experience. As it did in 1965, the United Kingdom is once again dancing to Harare’s tunes. For Zimbabweans, black and white, the much-awaited equitable land distribution remains a fleeting illusion.

The United Nations World Food Program estimates that 5.5 million Zimbabweans face starvation in 2004. According to the World Health Organization, 1.4 million are infected with HIV/AIDS. Unemployment stands at 70 per cent while inflation runs above 500 per cent with no end in sight. Zimbabwe surely will know the same fate as Congo should western powers and international organizations continue to choose sanctions over quiet diplomacy.

In 1991, after legalizing opposition political parties, Congo’s President Mobutu Sese Seko was under immense pressure from his opponents and western countries to step down. Sensing his end approach, Mobutu retreated to the only safe shelter for him in the country -- his heavily guarded yacht on the Congo River. Western powers insisted that Mobutu step down, but he strategically ignored them, forcing them to carry out their threats of embargo and sanctions. Bretton Woods institutions suspended their cooperation and withdrew their financial assistance. Other international organizations followed suit.

Mobutu rebounded from political quarantine. His power expanded almost overnight when unpaid soldiers pillaged the country, looting 1,400 enterprises and inflicting $700 million in damage. The national economy was paralyzed. As international organizations left the country in protest, Mobutu clamped down on the weakened opposition, virtually choking the nascent democratic initiative. The only credible opposition voice came from international organizations. Their engagement kept the democratic process alive. With their decision to depart, Mobutu’s position was strengthened. His rule was extended for another six years and Congo was set on a course to the calamity that plagues it today.

Zimbabwe stands at a crossroad. Western powers can hide behind the sanctions, thereby helping Mugabe to push the country over the precipice; or, they can heed the call of Southern African leaders for quiet diplomacy. Such an engagement centers on a genuine dialogue with Mugabe. It does not involve dictating decisions that have already been reached in London or elsewhere. It shows increased sensitivity to the historical racial context, considers the needs of neighboring countries, and offers solutions that benefit all parties.

In choosing the latter option, Blair and company would be treating Mugabe in the way that regional leaders are often dealt with in other parts of the world. China and Japan opted for quiet diplomacy over alienation and inflammatory discourse with North Korea. For geopolitical reasons, Zimbabwe’s neighbors have adopted similar policies of engagement. A civil war or famine in Zimbabwe would trigger a mass exodus that could destabilize Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique and South Africa. A failure in Zimbabwe could also affect current land reform in South Africa.

Proceeding with the required caution and sensitivity, Democratic South Africa has struggled with land reform for the past decade. As a result, South African president Thabo Mbeki has a much better grasp of land reform than Tony Blair and any of his supporters. None among the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and the United States can claim experience with any laudable land reform. A balanced approach as suggested by Mbeki that combines sanctions with a vigorous engagement will nudge Zimbabwe toward the road less traveled - the road to sustainable democracy.

One potential solution can be found in the United States policy towards the Republic of Georgia. The US sustained engagement with President Eduard Shevardnadze throughout his tumultuous tenure. The worse the situation got, the more the US committed itself to maintaining a dialogue with both Shevardnadze and the opposition. Shevardnadze was eventually forced to resign last November. Three days after a peaceful resignation, US President George Bush pledged even greater support to the new, still untested government. In so doing, the US unequivocally affirmed its support for democracy in the former Soviet Union.

A similar approach in Africa would demonstrate the commitment of the West to global democracy. Their sustained engagement with Mugabe would revamp their credibility in the southern hemisphere and help save Zimbabwe from an imminent collapse. Africa needs a success story to both sustain and encourage opposition parties that are fighting for democracy across the continent. A hit-and-run diplomacy has not helped these parties. Instead, every time western commitment withers, those who advocate democracy are left at the mercy of dictators. Continuous engagement and support from western powers would instill much needed momentum to the anemic democratic movement in Africa.

The writer served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve for six years. He has worked as radio broadcaster at the Voice of America's French Service to Africa and at the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa.