Zimbabwe: Whose Problem Is It Anyway?

Although, according to The Daily Telegraph, those considered disloyal to Robert Mugabe are today in Zimbabwe being, ‘subjected to terror on a scale that bears comparison with the Khmer Rouge‘, it would be dishonest if I claimed that that was what bothered me the most. No, I’m afraid that what I found most depressing, in as much as it was the sole thing that triggered anything more than metaphorical shoulder shrugging, was the desecration of the Anglican cathedral in Harare.

Zanu goons stripped the church of various ‘colonial’ memorials, for which read, monuments pertaining to white people. It wasn’t so much the obvious racism of it, as the sheer stupid disrespect to the past that rankled. Mugabe and his fellow kleptocrats, in their fondness for renaming streets, and indeed, whole cities, show an appreciation for the palimpsest that makes a nation, and in, twenty years on, vandalising a Christian meeting house, the fundamental fraud that always underlay African ‘liberation’ movements is betrayed yet again. Bad an idea as nationalism is everywhere, in Africa the virus was unleashed in bodies – the successor states to European colonies – quite incapable of bearing it. Contrary to what every passing Conservative will tell you, Africa is ‘our fault’. The question this admits is, what, if anything, should we do, in addition to that we already have done?

The first thing to reflect on when considering Zimbabwe is why we’re considering it at all. There’s plenty of misery everywhere else in Africa – think merely on the Congo, where, through incompetence as much as anything, elections have been reduced to a fine old choice of one candidate. No, the reason we’re looking at Zimbabwe is because there’s white folk involved. In the case of Britain, to dredge up a phrase beloved by the right in this country, our ‘kith and kin’. And who’d want to be a white Zimbabwean farmer? Brave people, one and all, the font of whatever prosperity this poor place ever once possessed, but indisputably, in their recent travails, the reason why so much Western media interest has been lavished on Zimbabwe of late.

To put the argument that, it’s not the suffering of MDC activists which, uniquely of all African democrats, earns our interest, in context, think for a minute about Apartheid era South Africa. In Britain, and, as far as I could tell, all the other English speaking countries, South Africa was up there as heap big 1980s news story – night after night some wickedness of PW Botha would be paraded in front of us by the BBC. At the time, sour right wing types muttered, there’s stuff happening elsewhere you know, but always the vast interest we were meant to have in the fate of South African blacks dictated the news agenda of Western media. Why? Again, because, unlike pretty much everywhere else where unpleasantness was going down, South Africa had white people involved. Compare and contrast the attention South Africa receives from whatever your preferred news source is today, to that which it got before white minority rule was overthrown. There then, as Zimbabwe now, our thoroughly racist liberal press has eyes only for the comings and goings of white people.

To rant for a second longer, for the Anglophone fourth estate (and, it would appear, for the press in most first world countries) the preference very firmly is: white people doing terrible things to black people; black people doing uncongenial things to whites, if that’s all that’s on offer; and, if there’s very little to go round, whites being uncivilized to other whites will do. Black on black action, however, is not box office. You could, with mathematical precision, demonstrate this through the behaviour of any British or American television channel. For your equation, take, the number of people killed in all the Balkan conflicts of the last decade, and the number killed in, oh, the Great Lakes in the 90s, and then place those two figures over the amount of airtime devoted, respectively, to each .

So – and I can almost feel the hand-wringing pleasure liberals get when they say this – you and me, by paying attention to Zimbabwe, when we could turn our fine minds to dozens of other issues, are part of the problem too . . . and that’s where we have to sit up and say, actually, if I want to be interested in, say, Zimbabwe, and bored rigid by [jabs pen randomly at opened atlas] Chad’s misery, that’s very much up to me. True enough, and looking at Zimbabwe, what do we see? Well, I’m afraid, devoid of her continental context, far too many of us see far too much.

This column’s very own blog is a compendious source of scepticism about Zimbabwe, or more precisely, about the notion that here, in succession to all those crusades so willingly entered into by Messrs Blair and Clinton, is yet another offence against decency, requiring the Royal Marines, or the US Marines, or whatever instrument Western morality best sees fit, to right it. Though, and you’ll have noticed our uncharacteristic hesitation to use arms, it would be to set me haring off again after liberal racism, were I to reflect on our willingness to bomb Serbs, on any pretext, as compared to our comparative reluctance to bomb Zimbabweans. I’m probably missing something, much like the way I’m puzzled by the whole ‘Zimbabwe: worst thing happening on the planet, at the moment’ schtick.

Take just the death rate, standing at, at least forty, no one can doubt that Robert Mugabe presides over a lousy state of affairs. Yet, neither in the context of neighbouring states, nor post-independence African history is this anything to write home about, or broadcast endless TV special after TV special on, one might have thought. Which African country has violence-free elections? Which ever had? When Nigeria, one of our great colonial ‘success stories’ emerged in 1960, clothed in every democratic institution Westminster could bestow, the result was that

The 1964-65 elections saw very low voter participation, followed by increasing violence that led to the death of as many as 2,000 persons. After an abortive coup attempt in January 1966, the army took over under Major General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, an Igbo, and a Federal Military Government was formed. Ironsi’s tenure was short-lived because northern officers staged a countercoup in July, in which Ironsi was killed and Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a Christian from the middle belt area, took control. Tension increased between the infantry, who were mainly of northern origin, and the Igbo soldiers in the south. The conflict led to the bloody civil war of 1967-70 (also known as the Biafran War) that took the lives of about 2 million persons.

Of course a civil war (or a defeated effort at self-determination, call it what you will) doesn’t help, but looking to post-colonial Africa for pristine elections isn’t especially sensible.

Ironic detachment would seem to have pervaded the international crowd of harpies that too many professional election monitors amount to (SOAM, SADC, and a Commonwealth Observer Mission are all at work in Zimbabwe – the EU ran into a bit of bother with its lot when Mugabe took against nationals from the protestant member states), if the words of one Ugandan observer are anything to go by:

[on being asked if the elections would be free and fair] We stopped using language like ‘free and fair’ 10 years ago. We believe that an election can be free without being fair, or fair without being free. That’s why we stick to saying whether the results are a credible expression of the will of the people, or not.

And you can see why it would take special training, in the absence of, oh, valid ballots, to be able to divine that.

Ah, but that’s just ‘affected Tory cynicism: throw in a reference to the past (funny how you lot always find that larded with bad things when it suits you) and you can dismiss anything in the here and now – it’s just an excuse for inaction’, says you, being a progressive sort. At least, that’s whom one would imagine ones interlocutors to be, but the weirdness of recent events has been that it’s serried shades of rightist who keep whining away about issues like, ‘where best to land the Marines as we bring democracy to . . .’? [My atlas is now shut, so you’ll have to stab your own pen]. However, their (these strange self-declared, often fairly recent, ‘conservatives’) chief concerns are no more convincing coming from them than they would be from any Sontagian halfwit.

On the simple matter of, ‘is Comrade Bob telling the truth?’ Pretty much, when it comes to his manifesto issues. In point of fact – and I can see no reason for shame about this – Mugabe is, as he keeps claiming, being opposed by a political movement that both attracts the support of his own, aboriginal as it were, white elite, and of foreign backers. He does want to complete a vile redistribution of land promised by Britain at Lancaster House (admittedly, he wants to redistribute this land to political chums), and Morgan Tsvangirai doesn’t, as much – and that does cost votes in the country areas.

Turning to the issue of Britain’s ‘obligations’ to Britons-in-Zimbabwe, it has to be pointed out that they’re only British when they’re in trouble. On the whole, these people, five or more generations into life in Rhodesia, have, even after the passing of white rule, found life in Zimbabwe more entrancing than the prospect of life actually lived in Britain. More profoundly, if we demand the right to intervene thus on behalf of our nationals abroad, do foreign governments have similar claims upon us? if it could be demonstrated that ‘Nigerians’ resident here, whether of Nigerian descent or actual passport holders, were suffering racism in Britain, does this mean that we should prepare to receive a delegation from their supposed government? To me, white Zimbabweans are just that, Zimbabweans.

Other claims upon our common humanity are advanced in favour of intervention – though, again, it is notable how unsketched out, in comparison to our Balkan, or even our Middle Eastern adventures, these are in the case of Mission Africa – but one does have to keep coming back to, ‘why Zimbabwe?’ It’s, patently, not where the most harm is being done, and therefore where the most good could be accomplished. We sigh when white judges are driven off the Supreme Court precisely because, for the better part of two decades there was a fairly independent judiciary to be bothered about. When, out of a crashed police car, tumble forth ballot papers ‘cast’ in favour of Mugabe, obviously it’s sordid, but at the same time, it’s hapless. It’s like nothing as much as the manner in which Milosevic fell – Mugabe is having to attempt to rig an election, exactly due to his inability to rule by dictatorial fiat.

Mind you, much as, if the people of Yugoslavia had been unwise enough to re-elect Slobo, we in the West, for all our prattling that we were bombing them for the sake of democracy, would not have countenanced recognising the result for an instant, it is a high principle in these affairs that we already know who should win the Zimbabwean election, and heaven help the people of that country if they are silly enough to vote the wrong way.

I started by saying that the coming into being of modern African states is the core sin in all this – decolonization, whatever one makes of colonization, is the great liberal crime against humanity of the twentieth century. In the specific instance of Zimbabwe, however, what we are seeing is not a failure of the state, but of the regime. Mugabe’s time is almost done, and hence, in the flux entailed thereby, all these things the BBC finds to show us. Masterly inaction by Western governments would see this problem take care of itself (and not just because various important bits apparently keep falling off President Bob), if only they could resist the constant clamour for action from their own domestic media.

Despite all this, I can’t say that I would throw my hands up in horror, should Mugabe attempt to steal, as it seems certainly would be the case, the election, and, as a result, Britain intervened. It’s not even the hardest thing in the world to imagine how – the army’s (ours that is) always training in Namibia, the Caprivi Strip takes you close enough to Zimbabwe, we appear to like this sort of thing, we greatly enjoyed Sierra Leone, we’d have a friend in Morgan, heck, lots of, not so much reasons, as opportunities to get the job done, if we decide that this is where the fancy takes us. And why isn’t that anywhere near as shocking as what the US is up to, in dozens of countries across the globe? In part it is a question of scale (i.e., Britain’s self-evidently not attempting to secure global hegemony, which, not least amongst its demerits, currently involves us being subject to US tutelage), and, in part, this is a more plausible admixture of intervention due to morality and self-interest than most the US gets up to. As I keep droning on, the colossal pity about American intervention overseas is that it’s so inept: being, in far too many cases, neither moral, nor sensible from the point of view of her national interest, whether that national interest is viewed through an imperial prism or not.

Out there somewhere, some of you will now be screaming very loudly, ‘you hypocritical swine, you’re not opposed to imperialism per se, merely the American variant’. True enough, and we’ll chat about that, in detail, some other time, but for now: though I think there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with imperialism, that’s the whole point about Toryism, or competent Conservatism for that matter – horses for courses, or, as they’ll insist on phrasing it at universities, it’s all to do with particularism. Imperialism might sit well with the British experience, but it may, equally, sit badly with that of another country. I don’t know if it’s because of some primordial republican virtue being transgressed against, or whether your rulers are simply too nice, or too nasty, but you’re, plain and simply, not very good at imperialism. I’d get out of this line of work, and leave it to those who put most of the problems your rulers claim to be so exercised by there in the first place. Britain should tidy up her own mess; indeed, were we, independently of American sanction, to do this, we would do American anti-imperialists the signal favour of removing neo-con pretexts for US intervention overseas.

So there you have it – the quickest way to America being a Republic again is for Britain to be an empire again. Handy that.