By Stephen Gowans
Ever since veterans of the guerrilla war against apartheid Rhodesia violently seized white-owned farms in Zimbabwe, the country’s president, Robert Mugabe, has been demonized by politicians, human rights organizations and the media in the West. His crimes, according to right-wing sources, are numerous: human rights abuses, election rigging, repression of political opponents, corruption, and mismanagement of the economy. Leftist detractors say Mugabe talks left and walks right, and that his anti-imperialist rhetoric is pure demagogy.
I’m going to argue that the basis for Mugabe’s demonization is the desire of Western powers to change the economic and land redistribution policies Mugabe’s government has pursued; that his lapses from liberal democratic rectitude are, in themselves, of little moment to decision makers in Washington and London; and that the ultimate aim of regime change is to replace Mugabe with someone who can be counted on to reliably look after Western interests, and particularly British investments, in Zimbabwe.
I am also going to argue that the Zanu-PF government’s abridgment of formal liberties (including freedom of assembly and freedom to travel outside the country) are warranted restraints, justified by the need to protect the political program of the elected government from hostile outside interference. In making this argument I am challenging a widely held, and often unexamined, view that civil and political liberties are senior to all other liberties, including rights related to economic sovereignty and freedom from oppression and exploitation.
Before 1980 Zimbabwe was a white-supremacist British colony named after the British financier Cecil Rhodes, whose company, the British South Africa Company, stole the land from the indigenous Matabele and Mashona people in the 1890s. British soldiers, who laid claim to the land by force of arms on behalf of Rhodes, were each rewarded with nine square miles of territory. The Matabele and Mashona — those who weren’t killed in the British land grab — were rewarded with dispossession, grinding poverty, misery and subjugation. By the turn of this century, in a country of 13 million, almost 70 percent of the country’s arable agricultural land was owned by some 4,500 mostly white farmers, many descendant from the original British settlers.
After a long campaign for national liberation, independence talks were held in 1979. Talks almost broke down over the land question, but Washington and London, eager for a settlement, agreed to ante up and provide financial support for a comprehensive land reform program. This, however, was to be short-lived. Britain found a way to wriggle out of its commitment, blocking the march toward the national liberation struggle’s principal goal.
George Shire’s grandfather Mhepo Mavakire used to farm land in Zimbabwe, before it was handed to a white man after the Second World War. Shire argues that “The unequal distribution of land in Zimbabwe was one of the major factors that inspired the rural-based liberation war against white rule and has been a source of continual popular agitation ever since.” (1)
“The government,” says Shire, “struggled to find a consensual way to transfer land,” but with inadequate funds and insufficient assistance from London, land reform made little headway. (2) Frustrated, and under pressure from war veterans who had grown tired of waiting for the land reform they’d fought for, Mugabe embarked on a course that would lead him headlong into collision with Western governments. He passed legislation enabling the government to seize nearly 1,500 farms owned by white Zimbabweans, without compensation. As Zimbabwe’s Foreign Affairs Minister from 1995 to 2005, Stan Mudenge put it, at that point “all hell broke loose.” (3) Having held free and fair elections on time, and having won them, Mugabe now became an international pariah. Overnight, he was transformed into a dictator, a stealer of elections and a thug.
Displeased with Mugabe’s fast track land reform program and irritated by other economic policies the Mugabe government was pursuing, the EU concluded that Mugabe would have to go, and that he would have to be forced out by civil society, the union movement or NGO’s, uprisings in the street, or a military coup. On 24 January, 1999, a meeting was convened at the Royal Institute of International Affairs to discuss the EU’s conclusion. The theme of the meeting, led by Richard Dowden, now the executive director of the pro-imperialist Royal African Society, was “Zimbabwe – Time for Mugabe to Go?” Mugabe’s “confiscating” of white-held land compelled an unequivocal yes to the conference’s rhetorical question. Dowden presented four options:
1) a military coup;
2) buying the opposition;
4) subverting Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party.
A few months later, Washington weighed in. The US State Department held a seminar to discuss a strategy for dealing with the “Zimbabwe crisis.” Civil society and the opposition would be strengthened to foment discontent and dissent. The opposition would be brought together under a single banner to enhance its chances of success at the polls and funding would be funnelled to the opposition through Western backed NGO’s. Dissident groups could be strengthened and encouraged to take to the streets. (4)
The Milosevic Treatment
The program the US State Department prescribed to rid Zimbabwe of Mugabe and his land reform politics had been used successfully to oust Yugoslavia’s president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. The basis of the program is to pressure the civilian population through a program of bombing, sanctions or military threat, in order to galvanize the population to rise up against its government, the proximal cause of its discomfort. (In Zimbabwe, the hoped for response is: If only Mugabe hadn’t antagonized the West, we wouldn’t be under this pressure.) This was illustrated by US Air Force General, Michael Short, who explained the purpose of the NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia was to create disaffection with Milosevic. “If you wake up in the morning,” explained Short, “and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, ‘Hey, Slobo, what’s this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?'” (5)
Paired with outside pressure is the enlistment of a political opposition and grassroots movement to discipline and organize the population’s disaffection so that it’s channelled in the direction of forcing the government to step down. Western powers create the pain, and inject a fifth column of “democracy” activists and a “democratic” opposition to offer the removal of the current government as the cure. In the end, the people administer the cure themselves. Because the Milosevic treatment is typically deployed against the leaders of revolutionary societies (though the revolution may have happened some time ago), the opposition can be thought of as a counter-revolutionary vanguard. The vanguard has two components: a formal political opposition, whose job it is to contest elections and cry foul when it doesn’t win, and an underground grassroots movement, mandated to carry out extra-parliamentary agitation and to take to the streets in planned “spontaneous” uprisings, using allegations of electoral fraud as a pretext for pursuing insurrectionary politics.
In Yugoslavia, the underground movement, known as Otpor, was established, funded, trained and organized by the US State Department, USAID, the US Congress-funded National Endowment for Democracy (which is said to do overtly what the CIA used to do covertly) and through various NGO’s like Freedom House, whose board of directors has included a rogues’ gallery of US ruling class activists: Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Otto Reich, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Steve Forbes.
Otpor has been the inspiration for similar groups elsewhere: Zubr in Belarus, Khmara in Georgia, Pora in the Ukraine. Otpor’s Zimbabwean progeny include Zvakwana, “an underground movement that aims to …. undermine” the Mugabe government and Sokwanele, whose “members specialize in anonymous acts of civil disobedience.” (6) Both groups receive generous financing from Western sources. (7) While the original, Otpor, was largely a youth-oriented anarchist-leaning movement, at least one member of Sokwanele is “A conservative white businessman expressing a passion for freedom, tradition, polite manners and the British Royals.” (8)
Members of Zvakwana say their movement is homegrown and free of foreign control. (9) It may be homegrown, and its operatives may sincerely believe they chart their own course, but the group is almost certainly not free of foreign funding. The US Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, signed into law by US President George W. Bush in December 2001, empowers the president under the US Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to “support democratic institutions, the free press and independent media” in Zimbabwe. It’s doubtful Zvakwana has not been showered with Washington’s largesse.
Zvakwana’s denial that it’s under foreign control doesn’t amount to a denial of foreign funding. Movements, political parties and media elsewhere have knowingly accepted funding from Western governments, their agencies and pro-imperialist foundations, while proclaiming their complete independence. (10) Members of these groups may genuinely believe they remain aloof from their backer’s aims (and in the West it is often the very groups that claim not to take sides that are the favored recipients of this lucre), but self-deception is an insidious thing – and the promise of oodles of cash is hard to resist.
There’s no doubt Zvakwana is well-financed. It distributes flashy stickers, condoms bearing the movement’s Z logo, phone cards, audiotapes and packages of seeds bearing anti-Mugabe messages, en masse. These things don’t come cheap. What’s more, its operatives study “videotapes on resistance movements in Poland, Chile, India and Serbia, as well as studying civil rights tactics used in Nashville.” (11) This betrays a level of funding and organization that goes well beyond what the meager self-financing of true grassroots movements — even in the far more affluent West – are able to scrape together.
If Zvakwana denies its links to the US, other elements of the Western-backed anti-Mugabe apparatus are less secretive. Studio 7, an anti-ZANU-PF radio program carries programming by the Voice of America, an agency whose existence can hardly be said to be independent of promoting the aims of US capital around the world. The radio station SW Radio Africa, the self-styled “independent voice of Zimbabwe,” broadcasts from the UK by short-wave radio. It may call itself independent, but the broadcaster is as independent as the British Foreign Office is, which, one suspects, is one of the principal backers of the “international pro-democracy groups” that fill the station’s coffers with the cash that allow it to operate. (12) The radio station’s website evinces a fondness for British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s take on Zimbabwe, which happens to be more or less equivalent to that of the formal political opposition in Zimbabwe, which also happens to be more or less equivalent to that of foreign investors, banks, and shareholders. That the station operates out of studios in London — and it seems, if it had its druthers, would not only put an end to Harare’s crackdown on foreign meddling in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs, but see to it that policies friendly to the rent, profits and interest of foreign owners and investors were allowed to flourish — should leave little doubt as to who’s behind the “international pro-democracy groups” that have put SW Radio Africa on the air.
In late March 2007, Richard from SW Radio Africa contacted me by e-mail to find out if I had been hired by the Mugabe government to write an article that appeared on the Counterpunch website, titled What’s Really Going On in Zimbabwe? (13)
Do you promise (cross your heart) that you received no money from Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Information (or any group acting on their behalf) to write this piece?
The rhetoric does sound awfully familiar.
From your e-mail address I take it you work for UK-based SW Radio Africa, which broadcasts Studio 7, the Zimbabwe program of the Voice of America, funded by the US government.
I don’t receive money, support, assistance — not even foot massages — from anyone in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwean government or any of its agents or representatives.
Now, do you promise (cross your heart) that you receive no money from the US or British governments or from the US Ministry of Truth, viz., the Voice of America, (or any group acting on their behalf)?
Your rhetoric sounds awfully familiar.
Richard replied with assurances that “We are, in truth, totally independent, sponsored by a variety of groups that support democracy and freedom of expression,” but didn’t explain how Radio SW Africa could be “totally independent” and at the same time dependent on its sponsors. When I asked who the station’s sponsors were, he declined to tell me.
An equally important component of the counter-revolutionary vanguard is the formal political opposition. This to be comprised of a single party which unites all the opposition parties under a single banner, to maximize the strength of the formal political forces arrayed against the government, and therefore to increase the probability of the anti-government forces making a respectable showing at the polls. The united opposition is to have one goal: deposing the government. In order that it is invested with moral gravitas, its name must emphasize the word “democracy.” In Serbia, the anti-Milosevic opposition united under the banner, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia. In Zimbabwe, the opposition calls itself the Movement for Democratic Change. This serves the additional function of calling the government’s commitment to democracy into question. If the opposition is “the democratic opposition” then what must the government be? The answer, of course, is undemocratic.
Integral to the Milosevic treatment is accusing the government of electoral fraud to justify a transition from electoral to insurrectionary politics. The accusations build and build as the day of the vote approaches, until, by sheer repetition, they are accepted as a matter of indisputable truth. This has a heads I win, tails you lose character. If the opposition loses the election, the vote is confirmed to be illegitimate, as all the pre-election warnings predicted it would be, unleashing a torrent of people onto the streets to demand the government step down. If the opposition wins the election, the accusations are forgotten.
The US, the European Union and international human rights organizations denounced the last election in Zimbabwe as tilted in favour of the governing party. The evidence for this was that the state controls the state-owned media, the military, the police and the electoral mechanisms. Since the state of every country controls the military, the police and the electoral mechanisms, and the state-owned media if it has one, this implies elections in all countries are titled in favour of the governing party, a manifestly absurd point of view.
So far the Milosevic treatment has failed to achieve its desired end in Zimbabwe. One of the reasons why is that the formal political opposition has failed to execute the plan to a tee. The lapse centers around what is know as Plan B. The Los Angeles Times describes Plan B this way: “Insiders are asking what happened to the opposition’s ‘Plan B’ that they had designed to put into operation the day after the March (2005) elections. The plan called for (the MDC leader, Morgan) Tsvangirai to claim a confident victory, with masses of his jubilant supporters flooding the streets for a spontaneous victory party — banking on the idea that with observers from neighbouring African countries and the international media present, Mugabe’s security forces would hesitate to unleash violence.” (14) (Note the reference to the planned “spontaneous” victory party.) That Plan B wasn’t executed may be the reason Tsvangirai is no longer in control of a unified MDC, and is vying with Arthur Mutambara, an Oxford educated robotics engineer who worked as a management consultant, to lead the opposition.
Countering the Milosevic Treatment
The problem, from the perspective of the US State Department planners who formulated the Milosevic treatment, is that if you do it too often, the next victim becomes wise to what you’re up to, and can manoeuvre to stop it. With successes in Yugoslavia, Georgia and Ukraine, but failure so far in Belarus, the element of surprise is lost, and the blatancy of what the US government is up to becomes counter-productive. So obvious has the Milosevic treatment become, US government officials now express surprise when the leaders they’ve targeted for regime change put up with it. (15)
Mugabe, however, hasn’t put up with it, and has imposed a number of restrictions on civil liberties to thwart destabilization efforts. One measure is to ban NGOs that act as instruments of US or British foreign policy. NGOs that want to operate in Zimbabwe cannot receive foreign funding and must disclose their sources of financial support. This stops Washington and Britain from working within the country, through proxy, to meddle in the country’s internal affairs. For the same reason, legislation was put forward in Russia in 2005 to require the 450,000 NGOs operating there to re-register with the state, to prevent foreign-funded political activity. The legislation’s sponsors characterized “internationally financed NGOs as a ‘fifth column’ doing the bidding of foreigners.” (16)
In a similar vein, foreign journalists whose reporting appears to be motivated by the goal of promoting the foreign policy objectives of hostile nations, like the US and UK, are banned. CNN reporters are prohibited from reporting from Zimbabwe because the government regards them, with justification, as a tool of US foreign policy. What reasonable person of an unprejudiced mind would dispute CNN’s chauvinism? Given that one of the objects of US foreign policy is to intervene in Zimbabwe’s affairs to change the government, the ban is a warranted restraint on press freedom.
Limitations on press freedom are not unique to Zimbabwe, although those imposed by Mugabe are a good deal more justifiable than those imposed by the West. In the wake of the March 2006 re-election of Belarus president Aleksandr Lukashenko, the US planned to sanction 14 Belarus journalists it labelled “key figures in the propaganda, distortion of facts and attacks on the democracies (i.e., the US and Britain) and their representatives in Belarus.” (17) In 1999, NATO bombed the Serb Radio-TV building, because it said Serb Radio-TV was broadcasting propaganda.
Laws “sharply curbing freedoms of the press and public assembly, citing national security” were enacted during the 2002 elections. (18) Mugabe justified the restrictions as necessary to counter Western plans to re-impose domination of Zimbabwe. “They want our gold, our platinum, our land,” he argues. “These are ours forever. I will stand and fight for our rights of sovereignty. We fought for our country to be free. These resources will remain ours forever. Let this be understood to those in London.” (19)
Mugabe’s warning about the danger of re-colonization “underpins the crackdown on the nation’s most formidable independent forces, pro-democracy groups and the Movement for Democratic Change, both of which have broad Western support, and, often, financing,” as the New York Times put it. (20) (Note the reference to the opposition being independent even though it’s dependent on broad Western support and financing.)
This “fortress-Zimbabwe strategy has been strikingly effective. According to a poll of 1,200 Zimbabweans published in August (2004) by South African and American researchers, the level of public trust in Mr. Mugabe’s leadership has more than doubled since 1999, to 46 percent – even as the economy has fallen into ruin…and anger over economic and living conditions is pervasive.” (21)
Mugabe, his detractors allege, secures his support by focusing the public’s anger on outside forces to keep the public from focusing its anger on him (the same argument the US government and anti-Castro forces have been making about Castro for years.) If this is true, the groundswell of opposition to Mugabe’s government that we’re led to believe threatens to topple Mugabe from power any moment, doesn’t exist; it’s directed at outside forces. Consistent with this is the reality that the US-based Save Zimbabwe Campaign “does not…have widespread grassroots support.” (22)
Implicit in the argument that Mugabe uses anti-imperialist rhetoric to stay in power is the view that (a) outside forces aren’t responsible for the country’s deep economic crisis and that (b) Mugabe is. This is the view of US ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell, and many of Mugabe’s leftist detractors. “Neither drought nor sanctions are at the root of Zimbabwe’s decline. The Zimbabwe government’s own gross mismanagement of the economy and corrupt rule has brought on the crisis.” (23)
Yet, in a country whose economy is mainly based on agriculture, the idea that drought hasn’t caused serious economic trouble, is absurd. Drought is a regional phenomenon, whittling away at populations in Mali, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mauritania, Eritrea, southern Sudan and Zimbabwe. Land redistribution hasn’t destroyed agriculture in Zimbabwe; it has destroyed white commercial, cash-crop farming, which is centred on the production of tobacco for export.
Equally absurd is the notion that sanctions are economically neutral. Sanctions imposed by the US, EU and other countries deny Zimbabwe international economic and humanitarian assistance and disrupt trade and investment flows. Surgical or targeted sanctions are like surgical or targeted bombing: not as surgical as their champions allege and the cause of a good deal of collateral damage and suffering.
Left critics of Mugabe ape the argument of the US ambassador, adding that Mugabe’s anti-imperialist and leftist rhetoric is, in truth, insincere. He is actually right-wing and reactionary — a master at talking left while walking right. (24) But if Mugabe is really the crypto-reactionary, secret pro-imperialist some people say he is, why are the openly reactionary, pro-imperialists in Washington and London so agitated?
Finally, if Mugabe uses outside interference as an excuse to keep tight control, why not stop interfering and deny him the excuse?
Mugabe’s government also denies passports to any person believed to be travelling abroad to campaign for sanctions against Zimbabwe, or military intervention in Zimbabwe. The justification for this is the opposition’s fondness for inviting its backers in Washington and London to ratchet up punitive measures against the country.
No country has ever provided unqualified public advocacy rights, rights of association, and freedom of travel, for all people, at all times. Always there has been the idea of warranted restraint. And the conditions under which warranted restraint have been imposed are conditions in which the state is threatened. There’s no question the ZANU-PF government, and the movement for national liberation it champions, is under threat.
Archbishop Pius Ncube tells a gathering that “we must be ready to stand, even in front of blazing guns, that “this dictatorship must be brought down right now, and that “if we can get 30,000 people together Mugabe will just come down. I am ready to lead it.” (25) Arthur Mutambara boasts that he is “going to remove Robert Mugabe, I promise you, with every tool at my disposal” and that he’s not “going to rule out or in anything – the sky’s the limit.” (26) If I declared an intention to remove Tony Blair with every tool at my disposal, that no tool was ruled out, and I did so with the backing of hostile foreign powers, it wouldn’t be long before the police paid me a visit.
Why the West wants Mugabe gone
It’s not Mugabe per se that Washington and London and white commercial farmers in Zimbabwe want to overthrow. It’s his policies they want to be rid of, and they want to replace his policies with their own, very different, policies. There are at least five reasons why Washington and London want to oust Mugabe, none of which have anything to do with human rights.
The first reason to chase Mugabe from power is that in the late 90’s his government abandoned IMF-mandated structural adjustment programs – programs of bleeding people dry to pay interest on international debt. These are policies of currency devaluation, severe social program cuts – anything to free up money to pay down debt, no matter what the human consequences.
The second is that Mugabe sent troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo to bolster the Kabila government. This interfered with Western designs in the region.
The third is that many of Mugabe’s economic policies are not congenial to the current neo-liberal orthodoxy. For example, Mugabe recently announced the nationalization of a diamond mine, which seems to be, in the current climate, an anachronism. If you nationalize anything these days, you’re called radical and out of date. The MDC – which promotes the neo-liberal tyranny — wants to privatize everything. It is for this reason that Mugabe talks about the opposition wanting to sell off Zimbabwe’s resources. The state continues to operate state-owned enterprises. And the government imposes performance requirements on foreign investors. For example, you may be required to invest part of your profits in government bonds. Or you may be required to take on a local partner. Foreign investors, or governments that represent them, bristle at these conditions.
The fourth is that British companies dominate the Zimbabwean economy and the British government would like to protect the investments of British banks, investors and corporations. If you read the British press you’ll find a fixation on Zimbabwe, one you won’t find elsewhere. Why does Britain take such a keen interest in the internal affairs of Zimbabwe? The usual answer is that Britain has an especial interest in Zimbabwe because it is the country’s former colonial master, but why should Britain’s former colonial domination of Zimbabwe heighten its interest in the country? The answer is that colonization paved the way for an economic domination of the country by British corporations, investors and banks – and the domination carries on as a legacy of Britain’s former colonial rule. If you’re part of the British ruling class or one of its representatives, what you want in a country in which you have enormous investments is a trustworthy local ruler who will look after them. Mutambara, who was educated in Britain and lived there, and has absorbed the imperialist point of view, is, from the perspective of the British ruling class, far more attractive than Mugabe as a steward of its interests.
Finally, Western powers would like to see Mugabe replaced by a trustworthy steward who will abandon the fast track land reform program, which apart from violating sacrosanct principles of the capitalist church, if allowed to thrive, becomes a model to inspire the indigenous rural populations of neighbouring countries. Governments in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand also look askance at Mugabe’s land reform policy, and wish to see it overturned, for fear it will inspire their own aboriginal populations.
Mugabe’s government accelerated its land redistribution program in the late 90s, breaking with the completely unworkable, willing buyer, willing seller policy that only allowed the government to redistribute the country’s arable land after the descendants of the former colonial settlers, absentee landlords and some members of the British House of Lords were done using it, and therefore willing to sell. Britain, which had pledged financial assistance to its former colony to help buy the land, reneged, leaving Harare without the means to expropriate with compensation the vast farms dominated by the tiny minority of white descendants of British colonists.
“Zimbabwe finally abandoned the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ formula in 1997. The formula was crippled from the start by parsimonious British funding, and it was a clear that the program’s modest goals were more than Great Britain was willing to countenance. In a letter to the Zimbabwean Minister of Agriculture in November of that year, British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short wrote, ‘I should make it clear that we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe.’ Referring to earlier British assistance funding, Short curtly stated, ‘I am told that there were discussions in 1989 and 1996 to explore the possibility of further assistance. However that is all in the past.’ Short complained of ‘unresolved’ issues, such as ‘the way in which land would be acquired and compensation paid – clearly it would not help the poor of Zimbabwe if it was done in a way which undermined investor confidence.’ Short was concerned about the interests of corporate investors, then. In closing, Short wrote that ‘a program of rapid land acquisition as you now seem to envisage would be impossible for us to support,’ as it would damage the ‘prospects for attracting investment’” (27)
It was only after Mugabe embarked on this accelerated land reform program that Washington and London initiated their campaign of regime change, pressuring Mugabe’s government with sanctions, expulsion from the Commonwealth, assistance to the opposition, and the usual Manichean demonization of the target government and angelization of the Western backed opposition.
The MDC, by comparison, favours a return to the unworkable willing seller, willing buyer regimen. The policy is unworkable because Harare hasn’t the money to buy the farms, Britain is no longer willing to finance the program, and even if the money were available, the owners have to agree to sell their farms before the land can be redistributed. Land reform under this program will necessarily proceed at a snail’s pace. The national liberation movement always balked at the idea of having to buy land that had been stolen from the indigenous population. It’s like someone stealing your car, and when you demand it back, being told you’re going to have to buy it back, and only when the thief is willing to sell.
One thing opponents and supporters of Mugabe’s government agree on is that the opposition is trying to oust the president (illegally and unconstitutionally if you acknowledge the plan isn’t limited to victory at the polls.) So which came first? Attempts to overthrow Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF government, or the government’s harsh crackdown on opposition?
According to the Western media spin, the answer is the government’s harsh crackdown on opposition. Mugabe’s government is accused of being inherently authoritarian, greedy for power for power’s sake, and willing do anything – from stealing elections to cracking skulls — to hang on to its privileged position. This is the typical slander levelled at the heads of governments the US and UK have trouble with, from Milosevic in his day, to Kim Jong Il, to Castro.
Another view is that the government’s authoritarianism is an inevitable reaction to circumstances that are unfavorable to the attainment of its political (not its leaders’ personal) goals. Mugabe’s government came to power at the head of a movement that not only sought political independence, but aspired to reverse the historical theft of land by white settlers. That the opposition would be fierce and merciless – has been so – was inevitable. Reaction to the opposition, if the government and its anti-colonial agenda were to survive, would need to be equally fierce and merciless.
At the core of the conflict is a clash of right against right: the right of white settlers to enjoy whatever benefits stolen land yields in profits and rent against the right of the original owners to reclaim their land. Allied to this is a broader struggle for economic independence, which sets the rights of investors and corporations abroad to profit from untrammelled access to Zimbabwe’s labor, land and resources and the right of Zimbabweans to restrict access on their own terms to facilitate their own economic development.
The dichotomy of personal versus political motivation as the basis for the actions of maligned governments recurs in debates over whether this or that leader or movement ought to be supported or reviled. The personal view says that all leaders are corrupt, chase after personal glory, power and wealth, and dishonestly manipulate the people they profess to champion. The political view doesn’t deny the personal view as a possibility, but holds that the behavior of leaders is constrained by political goals.
“Even George Bush who rigs elections and manipulates news in order to stay in office and who clearly enjoys being ‘the War President,’ wants the presidency in order to carry out a particular program with messianic fervor,” points out Richard Levins. “He would never protect the environment, provide healthcare, guarantee universal free education, or separate church and state, just to stay in office.” (28)
Mugabe is sometimes criticized for being pushed into accelerating land reform by a restive population impatient with the glacial pace of redistribution allowed under the Lancaster House agreement. His detractors allege, implausibly, that he has no real commitment to land reforms. This intersects with Patrick Bond’s view. According to Bond, “Mugabe talks radical — especially nationalist and anti-imperialist—(to hang on to power) but acts reactionary.” He only does what’s necessary to preserve his rule.
If we accept this as true, then we’re saying that the behavior of the government is constrained by one of the original goals of the liberation movement (land reform) and that the personal view is irrelevant. No matter what the motivations of the government’s leaders, the course the government follows is conditioned by the goals of the larger movement of national liberation.
There’s no question Mugabe reacted harshly to recent provocations by factions of the MDC, or that his government was deliberately provoked. But the germane question isn’t whether beating Morgan Tsvangirai over the head was too much, but whether the ban on political rallies in Harare, which the opposition deliberately violated, is justified. That depends on whose side you’re on, and whether you think Tsvangirai and his associates are earnest citizens trying to freely express their views or are proxies for imperialist governments bent on establishing (restoring in Britain’s case) hegemony over Zimbabwe.
There’s no question either that Mugabe’s government is in a precarious position. The economy is in a shambles, due in part to drought, to the disruptions caused by land reform, and to sanctions. White farmers want Mugabe gone (to slow land redistribution, or to stop it altogether), London and Washington want him gone (to ensure neo-liberal “reforms” are implemented), and it’s likely that some members of his own party also want him to step down.
On top of acting to sabotage Zimbabwe economically through sanctions, London and Washington have been funnelling financial, diplomatic and organizational assistance to groups and individuals who are committed to bringing about a color revolution (i.e., extra-constitutional regime change) in Zimbabwe. That includes Tsvangirai and the MDC factions, among others.
For the Mugabe government, the options are two-fold: Capitulate (and surrender any chance of maintaining what independence Zimbabwe has managed to secure at considerable cost) or fight back. Some people might deplore the methods used, but considering the actions and objectives of the opposition – and what’s at stake – the crackdown has been both measured and necessary.
1. The Guardian (January 24, 2002)
3. Zimbabwe’s Land Reform Programme (The Reversal of Colonial Land Occupation and Domination): Its Impact on the country’s regional and international relations. Paper presented by Dr I.S.G. Mudenge, Zimbabwe Minister of Foreign Affairs, to the Conference ‘The Struggle Continues’, held in Harare, 18-22 April 2004.
5. Globe and Mail (May 26, 1999)
6. “Grass-Roots Effort Aims to Upend Mugabe in Zimbabwe,” The New York Times, (March 28, 2005)
7. Los Angeles Times (July 8, 2005)
9. New York Times (March 27, 2005)
10. See Frances Stonor Saunders, “The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters,” New Press, April 2000; and “The Economics and Politics or the World Social Forum,” Aspects of India’s Economy, No. 35, September 2003, http://www.rupe-india.org/35/contents.html
11. New York Times (March 27, 2005)
12. Globe and Mail (March 26, 2005)
13. “What’s Really Going on in Zimbabwe? Mugabe Gets the Milosevic Treatment,” Counterpunch.com. March 23, 2007, http://www.counterpunch.org/gowans03232007.html
14. Los Angeles Times (July 8, 2005)
15. New York Times, (December 4, 2005)
16. Washington Post (November 18, 2005)
17. New York Times (March 29, 2006)
18. New York Times (December 24, 2004)
19. Globe and Mail (March 23, 2007)
20. New York Times (December 24, 2004)
22. Globe and Mail (March 22, 2007)
23. The Herald (November 7, 2005)
24. Patrick Bond, “Mugabe: Talks Radical, Acts Like a Reactionary: Zimbabwe’s Descent,” Counterpunch.com, March 27, 2007, http://www.counterpunch.org/bond03272007.html
25. Globe and Mail (March 23, 2007)
26. Times Online (March 5, 2006)
27. Gregory Elich, “Zimbabwe’s Fight for Justice,” Center for Research on Globalisation, May 6, 2005, globalresearch.ca/articles/ELI505A.html
28. “Progressive Cuba Bashing,” Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 19, No. 1, March 2005.