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African Despotism and European Double Standards

Article no: EN20080803-Article-4.5-2008

African Despotism and European Double Standards

Is there anything unusual about the events in question? An African despot, a good deal of bloodshed ? at least 80 dead, 10,000 injured, 200,000 displaced ?, a rigged election, a concentrated effort to dilute international interest which is very little in the first place ? that list contains nothing out of the usual or expected, does it? These ? sadly usual ? events unfolded in a most unusual way. An essay by Oliver Schmidt

The dictator in question, Mr. Robert Mugabe (84), had come to the end of a very difficult term of office indeed. Though torn down by a cruel apartheid system that Mr. Mugabe had to overcome by force Zimbabwe was still one of the richest and most productive countries of Africa in the 1980s. In 2000, the 20th year of Mr. Mugabe's rule, Zimbabwe still recorded a higher per-capita-income than all countries of Western, Eastern and Central Africa, with the only exception of oil (and uranium)-rich Gabon. Most of Zimbabwe's income came from agriculture, with tobacco being a leading cash crop.

In 2007, Zimbabwe's per-capita income had fallen by 80%; together with war-torn Liberia and Congo (US$500 and 300 respectively) it is now one of the three lowest-income countries of Africa. More than 2 out of 3 Zimbabweans live below the poverty line; according to the Economist (19 April 2008, p. 54) "80% of Zimbabweans [are] jobless". Hundreds of thousands have migrated to neighbouring countries. Corruption is getting worse.

* Zimbabwe is different

To such a background, Mr. Mugabe's party ZANU-PF seemed to be at the edge of falling apart in the dawn of the 2008 elections. There were rumours of Mr. Mugabe loosing hold of the security forces. A former finance minister threw in his hat for the presidential election; it seemed possible that he might sweep a significant share of ZANU-PF's vote bank along with many of its lieutenants. Rule in many African countries is based upon the countryside; the majority of people live in rural areas; the majority of rural people are subject to constraint education, constraint information and some sort of autocratic leadership. ZANU-PF seemed to be losing its grip of these constituencies. This meant in particular that its ability to inflict violence seemed collapsing.

Economic mismanagement, corruption and cronyism have long marred African countries. Incumbent African governments have been voted out of office before, e. g. in Zambia and in Senegal. It is fair to say that incumbent African governments often have rigged elections and clung to power, e. g. in Togo. Attention is drawn when the rigging gets messy and somebody is found with the hand in the ballot box, like the second Obote government in Uganda (early 1980s), the latest presidential election in Nigeria, or recently both government and opposition in Kenya. By and large, though, African rulers have learned to manipulate elections without formal or significant rigging. That is, they create unlevelled playing fields from the onset, prevent opposition parties from campaigning effectively, badmouth their reputation and create a favourable climate for their own re-election by colourful promises to all and robust hand-outs to key people (community leaders and the like). Examples are earlier (and coming?) elections in Senegal and recent elections Uganda. Such elections are criticized but accepted by international observers.

But in Zimbabwe, not the "foreigners" or even "friendly? observers (like other African governments) complained about manipulation and open rigging, but public opinion turned heavily against Mr. Mugabe. The opposition won the uphill-race of the parliamentary election and the presidential election. Morgan Tsvangirai, a high-profile trade union leader, led the 1999-founded Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to parliamentary majority (the first non-ZANU-PF parliamentary majority since 1980) and dwarfed both his contestants ? Mr. Mugabe and the former finance minister ? in the presidential election (about 48% against 43 and 8% respectively).

It was a most unexpected event. It was that unexpected that most non-African governments overlooked it. Rarely anybody congratulated and praised the people of Zimbabwe for their strong democratic mind and virtue under complicated conditions. In fact, European leaders and foreign ministers displayed mostly the same ignorance and disinterest that they had already shown when the crisis in Kenya in December 2007 erupted.

* Africans call for change

Mr. Mugabe, apparently, had studied the course of events in Kenya carefully enough. But at first, it did not look like that. Indeed, the first days after the March-29-election looked like he might just move out. I remember very well watching CNN with a Ugandan friend who was all excited. An excitement that, I think, was highly representative for many Africans in many African countries, and, more importantly, for many African governments. This was the second unusual event in this story: More African government and political leaders in more pronounced and distinctive statements than ever before called for a change of leadership in Zimbabwe, called for the outcome of the elections ? an outcome that did not match international election standards and yet had provided opposition with a majority of votes in both parliamentary and presidential elections.

Among those calling on Mr. Mugabe to step down were the government of Botswana, Tanzania and Zambia. The presidents of Nigeria and Rwanda, the Prime Minister of Kenya, as well as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Kofi Annan denounced the legality of the second round of Zimbabwe's presidential election. South African harbour workers, led by their trade unions, refused to offload a cargo of Chinese arms ordered by Mr. Mugabe's government. Angola and Mozambique also refused to receive the ship. However, other than Britain's Gordon Brown, no European leader pronounced much of an opinion about Zimbabwe. Mr. Brown eventually managed a strong critical note by the G8, i.e. supported by Russia.

It is important to recall here that the German chancellor Angela Merkel had given a very ambitious, very courageous, and very pronounced speech about good governance and democracy to the leaders of Africa, on occasion of the European-African summit in Lisbon in November 2007. This author at that time praised Ms. Merkel for both the European Africa policy outlined in the speech and the strategy of its presentation. At that time, African leaders kept quiet or ridiculed themselves by siding with Mr. Mugabe. This time, Mr. Mugabe stood alone. Even South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki, though avoiding distancing himself from Mr. Mugabe, kept publicly a low profile.

Did Europe recognize its opportunity? Did it recall its own policy proposal of Lisbon? Did Europe display any sign of a strategy about Zimbabwe, or just any sign of learning from their embarrassment about Kenya? If so, it all happened in secrecy. From what was seen, nothing was to be seen. At the same time, the same German chancellor Merkel found time and pathos to concern herself and the German government with the affairs of Myanmar.

* How Myanmar diverted attention from Zimbabwe

Myanmar is not an African country. It is located in South Asia, neighbouring India, China, Bangladesh and Thailand. By Asian standards, Myanmar is a rather small, not too geo-strategically significant country. However, India and China have strategic interests here, and as so often, when large, powerful neighbours have interests, the interests of the people itself are sidelined. That became painfully obvious when the government of Myanmar refused to provide ample relief to its citizen ridden by a biblical cyclone, and instead carried through a sham referendum on a new constitution.

All this is cruel and inhuman, but it is not surprising to the political observer, nor is it outstandingly cruel or outstandingly inhuman. Myanmar's despots have abused their citizen for a long time, why should a natural calamity ? which is only in its force, not in principle unusual to the shores of the Gulf of Bengal ? change that? India and China and ALL the world, including Ms. Merkel, have all the time turned a blind eye ? the former for substantial reasons, the latter for lack of substantial interest ? why should a natural calamity change THAT?

Obviously, in the world of modern media a natural calamity changes it. A natural calamity is newsworthy, and what is newsworthy is apparently worthy of Madam Chancellor's involvement. (It was, by the way, also worthy of public statements of Alice Schwarzer, a German feminist activist, who surprised everybody with naïveté about international politics worthy a Jimmy Carter, and of "Germany's first development worker" (Spiegel Online), Dr. Juergen Wilhelm, who surprised nobody with his intellectually wanting response to Ms. Schwarzer. This remark may look like an unnecessary polemic sidestep, but it puts Ms. Merkel's involvement into context.) Newsworthy in the modern media is short-lived; much more short-lived than the diplomacy necessary to change the despotic governance of Myanmar, or just the plight of its relief-aid-deprived people.

The German media, including Die Zeit, failed widely to question the strategic value of Ms. Merkel's moves on Myanmar; both the German media and the parliamentary opposition failed to consider if such moves contain any substance beyond hysterical proto-activism ? did the German government take a stand on the international debate about "the responsibility to protect"? Brought to the forefront by remarks of France's and Britain's foreign ministers, this concept is the latest attempt to shift international law away from the 350-year-old overruling principle of sovereignty. If the German government refrained from painting abstract vision, did Ms. Merkel's move fall in line with Germany's practical interests in India and China, and both countries' role in Germany's strive for a stronger position in the United Nations?

This may be merely background noise to the topic of this essay. Ironically, it is the background noise that completely diverted the little German and European attention that might have been spared for Zimbabwe. Should the "responsibility to protect" not include the protection of the Zimbabwean people from an illegitimate government? Note that this government is illegitimate not only by "Western" democratic standards but by its very own rules and those of its "peer group".

* Europe?s and Merkel?s failure

But no, the Zimbabwean people was left victim to an operation so ingeniously evil and cruel that it leaves the observer breathless, helpless, Mr. Mugabe turned his formally acknowledged defeat in March within 4 month into a formally acknowledged return to office. The people that had ousted its regime against all manipulation and rigging was left alone by the Europeans who, through the speech of Ms. Merkel, had pledged their partnership for good governance and democracy hardly 8 months ago. The same Ms. Merkel who had taken Mr. Mugabe head on in November did not have anything to say, let alone do, about him all the time between April and July. The ousted regime was allowed to cruelly and inhumanly abuse its people and to take with bloodshed what it was refused in formal disguise.

Europe did not look on, it just did not look this way at all. Only when Mr. Mugabe returned in a painfully embarrassing gesture as the elected President of Zimbabwe, did Miss Merkel and her minister of foreign affairs find the usual words of calling for respect for the will of the people etc. bla-bla. Only when the summit of African Presidents in July failed to unwelcome Mr. Mugabe did the German press find the usual words of critique ? the same press that had failed to uncover both the unbelievable, Machiavellian evil that happened in the last 4 months in Zimbabwe, and the total, absolute failure of Europe in general and Ms. Merkel in particular to be true to both their word and their strategy and, one may well argue, to their practical interests. Meanwhile, Mr. Mugabe's victory was formally crowned by Russia and China turning down UN sanctions in the UN Security Council.

* Risk of regional destabilization

The future of Mr. Mugabe's regime will very much depend on the outcome of the South African presidential election in 2009. Formally, Mr. Mbeki, the discredited Zimbabwe mediator of the South African Community, is not eligible for another term. His party, South Africa's ruling ANC, has elected Mr. Zuma as his leader and presidential candidate-to-be. But the ANC is deeply split. It is uncertain what Mr. Mbeki and his followers may think out to deprive Mr. Zuma of the presidential nomination. Meanwhile, the Mugabe regime has ample time to fortify its stand. It has demonstrated that it does not hesitate to spill the blood of its people, and to drag down its neighbours.

Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique, even Namibia and, with its political uncertainties South Africa, are at risk of destabilization. They may prefer to opt for a solution which basically keeps the Mugabe crowd in power even as the old despot steps aside. Others will take note of the example, e.g. Uganda's Museveni ? by many Ugandans labelled "a Mugabe in the making" ?, Senegal's Wade, and Ethiopia's Zenawi. And that is just mentioning "the new breed".

After all, Ms. Merkel has good chances to out-live Mr. Mugabe at the head of government. She may conveniently overlook that his despotic junta remains in power ? or she may shrug it off "as usual". Just as the German media and parliamentary opposition overlooked both her breach of word ? given at an international platform, on behalf of Europe ? and her failure to implement a consistent Africa policy (or South Asia policy) that would serve the German interest.

The peoples of Africa will not forget. History is full of European betrayals of the peoples of Africa ? big and small (remember Gerhard Schroeder's big deal with Mr. Zenawi ? when will there ever be a German Chancellor capable of a decent Africa policy?) but Europe's failure to live up at least by word and gesture to its 21st century partnership strategy in so short a time, on so significant an occasion, might stand out in the memory of the governments and peoples of Africa.

Dr. Oliver Schmidt is working as a microfinance consultant in India.

*) For several weeks I wanted to write this essay but couldn't get around to it. An early sketch soothed of anger and polemic. Later, I have been overwhelmed by frustration about the events unfolding. Let us see if the balance between the two can give rise to a fair account of events.

Posted: 3 Aug 2008

Recommended citation: Schmidt, Oliver (2008) ?African Despotism and European Double Standards?, World Economy & Development In Brief (WDEV), Luxembourg, 3 Aug (