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03 April 2007

Zimbabwe -- Mugabe's last days? Or will he rule to his 100th birthday?

Children display a stadium image of President Robert Mugabe at the 25th anniversary of independence for Zimbabwe in 2006. (Daily Telegraph, UK)

No continent on Earth has Africa's dismal ratio of Bad News to No News -- of terrible things happening, but very few details about the terrible things reaching the Wealth and Information Centers and the news consumers of Europe and North America. The BBC must do its reporting about Zimbabwe from outside Zimbabwe; BBC news crews are banned by the Mugabe government.

Like Idi Amin of Uganda, Robert Mugabe seems outrageous, a total villain, out of control, a madman, and the West wonders how the black African governments that are Zimbabwe's neighbors can stay seemingly silent about degenerating conditions in Zimbabwe. In particular, South Africa has maintained largely a diplomatic silence about worsening internal conditions in Zimbabwe -- a silence that many in the West and some increasingly blunt African leaders are interpreting as consent for Mugabe's violent and anti-democratic actions. The West wonders why sub-Saharan governments do not take blunt action to destabilize and end the Mugabe regime.

But for black Africa to take meaningful action against Mugabe would mean that African politicians would have to ally themselves with the white West -- to ally their actions with the desires of the lingering descendants of the European colonial powers. For a mix of political reasons and for reasons of authentic historical principle, this is something black African leaders are extremely reluctant to do.

It is not hard to call Mugabe bad, or mad, or terrible, or despicable. But black Africans ask: Is Mugabe, the black president/dictator of a free black nation, worse than white colonial rule was? Sub-Saharan Africa only freed itself from white colonial rule in very recent times, within living memory. To black leaders and black voters, Mugabe is a choice between old colonial white cruelty and barbarity, and new free cruelty and barbarity that has new ambitions and purposes which are no longer the wishes of London, Paris and Brussels.

The choice only seems easy and obvious to those in the West for whom African history began less than a decade ago. The more one reads of the old colonial ways, the harder it is to see the choice as an easy or obvious choice for Africans to make.

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The New Yorker (weekly magazine USA)
Monday 9 April 2007


Hanging On

by Philip Gourevitch

One Sunday afternoon last month, members of Zimbabwe’s opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, were gathering—for a prayer meeting, they said—when President Robert Mugabe’s security forces descended on them, firing tear gas, water cannons, and bullets. One person was killed, and at least fifty others were injured after being taken into custody. When the M.D.C. leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, a former trade-union activist, arrived at the police station, Mugabe’s men repeatedly bashed his head against a wall, then detained him, too. Mugabe has always been rough with the M.D.C., a party formed eight years ago to challenge his dictatorial powers, and Tsvangirai has been arrested and knocked around many times before, but this time he was badly disfigured and his skull severely lacerated. These are actions that most dictators would cover up, but several days later Mugabe held a public rally to commend the police for their use of force, and to warn Tsvangirai and his followers that they could expect more violence. True to his word, Mugabe unleashed his goons on a nationwide rampage that resulted in hundreds of his opponents and critics being dragged from their homes and offices and beaten.

The shamelessness of Mugabe’s brutality—and his gloating pride in it—aroused the attention of the international press and diplomatic corps. But the story of Zimbabwe’s violent misrule and national degradation is not a new one. Mugabe, who is eighty-three, came to power in 1980 as a leader of the long and bloody liberation struggle against the white-supremacist regime of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, and he has always used his hero’s mantle as cover for terrorizing his opponents, real and perceived. He has murdered thousands of his people and deprived the rest of meaningful freedom. In the process, he has transformed one of Africa’s most prosperous and promising countries into one of the poorest and weakest on earth.

Zimbabwe’s inflation rate is already more than seventeen hundred per cent, the highest in the world, and the International Monetary Fund warns that it could exceed five thousand per cent by year’s end. Unemployment is around eighty per cent, and the average income is less than a dollar a day. With chronic food shortages and no medical system left to speak of, life expectancy has plunged from sixty years, in 1990, to less than thirty-seven years (the shortest anywhere), while the infant-mortality rate has increased by more than fifty per cent. Not surprisingly, as many as three million Zimbabweans—a quarter of the population—have fled the country. Yet last week Mugabe’s information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, declared, “There is no crisis whatsoever in Zimbabwe.”

Mugabe has sworn that he will not relinquish power before his hundredth birthday. He is obsessed with the fiction that he is Zimbabwe’s legitimate leader, and his assault on his nation—an attempt to control his people by squeezing the life out of them—has steadily intensified since the emergence of the M.D.C. He seems to be punishing Zimbabweans just for considering that he could be replaced. But Mugabe, who is as clever as he is crude and perverse, blames his opponents for the unrest. According to his rhetoric, they are terrorists and agents of white imperialism, and whatever hardship the country may be enduring is the price of its ongoing fight for freedom. “The opposition is always calling for change, change, change,” Mugabe said at his mid-March rally. “I am not pink. I don’t want a pink nose. I can’t change. I don’t want to be European. I want to be African.” Tsvangirai, at the funeral for his murdered colleague, said of Mugabe, “I think he needs psychiatric help.”

Since 2002, Mugabe has faced censure and sanctions from the United States and Europe, but he treats these rebukes as badges of honor. (One consequence of America’s diminished authority since the invasion of Iraq has been that bullies around the world feel emboldened to scorn the West; Mugabe likes to tell his critics to “go hang.”) He has also been able to take comfort in the fact that African leaders have supported him, even as he insults them by insisting that his thuggery and his many failings are the expression of his African authenticity. South Africa, the regional power, has for years touted a policy of “quiet diplomacy” toward Zimbabwe—a euphemism for silently indulging Mugabe’s crimes and giving him a stamp of legitimacy when he has stolen elections. Why South Africa should provide this service is a matter of speculation. No doubt, President Thabo Mbeki and, to a degree, his predecessor, Nelson Mandela, don’t want to dishonor a fellow liberation leader. Yet they have dishonored themselves by failing to stand up to an oppressor who is as contemptuous of his people as Ian Smith was.

Still, last week, when Mugabe was summoned to account for Zimbabwe’s plight at a meeting of the region’s heads of state in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, it was widely reported that he had exhausted his neighbors’ indulgence. Given the gratuitousness and the extremity of Mugabe’s latest fits of violence, coupled with the fact that thousands of refugees were braving the crocodile-infested Limpopo River to enter South Africa illegally, the prevailing story in the press and among diplomats was that the dictator was finally approaching his endgame. Even if that were true, there is no obvious way to prepare a democratic succession of power. The resilience of the M.D.C. is impressive, but it is a weak party, inexperienced and internally divided, and the only alternatives are rival factions within Mugabe’s Zanu-PF Party, which are controlled by his old enforcers—former leaders of the Army and the security forces—who have grown immensely rich in the course of the country’s impoverishment.

Mugabe, meanwhile, remains defiant. He has begun campaigning for another term as President, and as he left for Dar es Salaam his police surrounded M.D.C. headquarters and again detained Tsvangirai and other members of the Party’s leadership. Mugabe said that he was looking forward to the solidarity of his fellow African leaders, and he flew home boasting, “We got full backing.” They did ask him about Tsvangirai, and Mugabe reported, “I told them he was beaten but he asked for it.” The meeting concluded with the leaders appointing Thabo Mbeki to encourage dialogue between Mugabe’s government and the opposition, and issuing a call for Western governments to lift their sanctions, while demanding nothing in exchange. “He will continue to tell the West to go hang,” Mugabe’s spokesman explained, but it was obvious that it was Zimbabwe that was being left to the gallows.

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Dave Coventry said...

Good Post showing a very strong understanding of the current situation in Zimbabwe.

After the rise of the opposition in 1999, Mugabe should have allowed the elections to proceed without interference. Sure he would have lost the election, but he would have regained power in a very much stronger position after 4 years. Not only that, but his legacy and achievements in terms of Education in the country would have remained intact.

However, that is not Mugabe's way. Revenge for a perceived betrayal is more his MO.

But there is another side to his desire to remain in power might have it's roots in another direction.

I have a suspicion that he intends to hand over power to one of Graces sons to establish a dynasty and I think he's hoping to remain in power until this might be possible.

Bob Merkin said...

e-mail to South Africa ...

Dear Dave Coventry --

(And I'm pretty sure you're the right D.C.)

You're very cruel to leave so flattering -- and so informative -- a comment on my goofy blog without a link or an addie, but Snooping Vincit Omnia.

During the worst of Idi Amin's rule and the West's horror at it, about the time Amin announced he was coming to London to make Queen Elizabeth II one of his wives, someone in a good U.S. publication wrote a long explanation about the mystery of Amin's popularity among black Africans. It was an education for me.

The unimaginable change in South Africa is so recent that The Beat's "Free Nelson Mandela" seems, in my head, like last week's radio hit. Looked at from that brief calendar, it would be surprising if South African politicians took a hard and hostile public line toward Mugabe. This week my neighboring University of Massachusetts is threatening to revoke the honorary doctorate they awarded Mugabe in 1986.

There's Mugabe and there's Ian Smith, but the millions of people between them are just people, most just victims forced to declare their allegiance to one villain or the other. Smith and Mugabe get all the media ink. The silent victims, if we notice them at all, are hanging around airports with suitcases and kids, fleeing.

Before the change in South Africa, I was getting my teeth drilled here in Massachusetts, and noticed that my dentist's diploma was from Witwatersrand. I asked him as tactfully as I could if the professional class was leaving S.A. "Oh yes, they're all gone," he said, as he might have said "One plus one equals two."

I've had the remarkable privilege to witness Prague Before and After -- like a fairy tale, universal Misery and Gloom magically transformed to Happiness and Hope. The anger and bitterness were fully comparable to African transitions -- but by some miracle of enlightened leadership, Havel et al saw clearly that Regime Change was not enough. Somehow the Czechs would have to give the Socialist Heroes the boot, but entirely skip the Decade of Delicious and Well-Earned Revenge.

It's a wonderful idea, and yet it's an unnatural thing. Fairy tales themselves -- to satisfy a child's clear and rigid sense of justice -- routinely end in an act of spectacularly cruel revenge. (At Snow White's wedding, her stepmother dances to death in red-hot iron shoes.) In the final years of Communist Czechoslovakia, Havel liked to turn a corner and then suddenly turn around so the secret police would careen into him. "Do not be afraid," he would say to them. "We are not like you."

To get smoothly and humanely from a dismal to a humane spot of history -- all over the world, this is the challenge most leaders and most politicians don't even realize they face. My President Bush has had his righteous Regime Change in Iraq, hangings and all, and now everyone, villains and victims alike -- is paying for it in blood and waste and loss and regional destabilization, with no end in sight. All the wedding guests have red-hot iron shoes bolted on, and no one can see an end to the dancing.

Agence Vleeptron-Presse herewith appoints you our Man-On-The-Ground in Sub-Saharan Africa. Please file regular dispatches on all newsworthy developments (by your own definition of "newsworthy"). AV-P pays your wages in pizza, if you ever get to my neighborhood or I ever get to yours.

Thanks again!

Bob Merkin

Northampton Massachusetts USA


7 April 2007

Mugabe may lose honorary degree

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (Associated Press) -- For the first time since it began awarding honorary degrees in 1885, the University of Massachusetts is considering taking one back -- from Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe.

When Mr. Mugabe received an honorary doctorate of law from the UMass.-Amherst campus in 1986, he was hailed as a humane revolutionary who ended an oppressive white rule to establish an independent Zimbabwe in 1980.

But two decades later, Mugabe has been condemned for attacks on dissidents and accused of overseeing a corrupt government that has ruined the economy.

On Wednesday, the student senate of the UMass.-Boston campus passed a resolution asking the university to revoke Mr. Mugabe's degree, and officials said they are considering it.

"Mugabe's actions during the past decade show he's fallen from being a good citizen of the world," said Shauna Murray, a graduate student who helped circulate a petition last month on the Boston campus urging the administration to rescind the degree.

"He has a track record of suppressing basic human rights, like free speech and the right to protest, and that doesn't represent what students here stand for," she said.

The issue also has surfaced at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and Michigan State University, which gave Mr. Mugabe honorary degrees in 1984 and 1990.

Terry Denbow, a Michigan State spokesman, said administrators have received letters requesting that Mr. Mugabe's degree be rescinded.

"There have been discussions, but I know of no formal process for rescinding the degree," Mr. Denbow said, adding that Michigan State has stopped its study abroad program in Zimbabwe.

Officials at Edinburgh said the issue of Mr. Mugabe's degree was under review.

According to UMass. policy, honorary degrees are handed out to people "of great accomplishment and high ethical standards." Its nearly 2,000 recipients have included Nelson Mandela, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, author Toni Morrison, and comedian and actor Bill Cosby.

Once lauded as a model for African democracy, Mr. Mugabe has tried to crush all opposition and threatened to expel Western envoys for criticizing his government.

Zimbabwe has the world's highest inflation rate and suffers from shortages of food, hard currency, gasoline and essential imports. The country's Roman Catholic bishops said last month that health, education and other public services "have all but disintegrated."

"Mugabe has become a scourge of his people and a scourge of Africa," said Michael Thelwell, a professor in the UMass. Afro-American studies department.

Mr. Thelwell was one of the professors who encouraged the school to award Mr. Mugabe an honorary degree in 1986.

"They gave it to the Robert Mugabe of the past, who was an inspiring and hopeful figure and a humane political leader at the time," he said. "The university has nothing to apologize for in giving a degree to the Robert Mugabe of 20 years ago."

But Mr. Thelwell and others cautioned against revoking the degree just to appease Mr. Mugabe's critics.

"The task of intellectuals is to seek the truth, not to be swayed by pressures of the moment," said Bill Strickland, a UMass politics professor. "If they take away the degree, they have to look at all the facts surrounding what is happening in Zimbabwe and not simply blame just one person."

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Dave Coventry said...


Apologies on not leaving any link; I afraid I don't really have a link that might be relevant.

I'm living in Durban, having recently returned to this country after 20 years in the UK.

If you look at situations in Prague, in Serbia, in Georgia, in places were a groundswell of public opposition has risen en masse to depose autocratic regimes, you will see that they bear little resemblance to the situation in Zimbabwe.

Any demonstration in Zimbabwe will raise twenty or thirty people, who will be confronted by a few thousand angry riot police.

Mugabe has looked at demonstrations in Eastern Europe which have resulted in the overthrow of these regimes, and he is making sure that he does not face a similar fate.

As insurance he has drafted in 2,500 of a feared Angolan brigade who are known as the 'Ninjas' in case his own police wavers.

But the real reason that there is no hope in Zimbabwe is because so few of them are prepared to risk a beating in the name of change.

Bob Merkin said...

I don't want to extrapolate, I couldn't be more ignorant about anything than African conditions. But there's indeed been an awful lot of experience with popular uprisings, successful and repressed, all over the planet.

Last year the absolute monarch of Nepal failed to suppress a popular uprising, and now he's been stripped of all his powers, and the country is run by a parliament and cabinet that's negotiating with the long-time Maoist insurrection.

In Eastern Europe there was about 70 years of uprisings and regime changes, some of them were "velvet" -- no shots fired -- and others prevailed in the face of massive military and police violence.

Looking backwards, intellectuals, writers, "men of words," seem to influence the uprising and its eventual popularity and the peoples' willingness to take risks as much as the violence of the police and army. Rifles and armor alone don't predict the outcome.

Then there are churches and church leaders, both traditional and sudden eruptions of popular religious movements like Falun Gong in the middle of one of the world's most repressive governments, China. NY Times estimated it has 70,000,000 followers. Religious movements can be a real Wild Card in trying to predict the future of a repressive regime.

In general, apparently our CIA had no clue that the Soviet Union and the entire Soviet bloc was about to undergo a rapid series of regime collases, with the regime opponents largely non-violent.

Won't the insane inflation and unemployment play a huge roll in stimulating people to take more risks against the Mugabe regime? Mugabe doesn't seem to have a heavy superpower backer, his military is going to run short of resources, the ability to effectively oppose large anti-government demonstrations.

fwiw, Indian economist won the Nobel Prize a few years ago for his research on famine. He said in modern times there's never been a famine in a democracy. Usually famine isn't a lack of food, but a breakdown in the food distribution system, and as soon as lots of people start getting hungry, they throw the government out and try another regime, which promises to get food to people at affordable prices again. In this case it would seem to me that fundamental food and wage shortages will inspire more and more people to want to see ballot-box change.