‘ The implications of Mugabe’s victory for Britain go far beyond Zimbabwe..’
The overwhelming victory of President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe’s July election is the biggest defeat for the United Kingdom’s policy in Africa in 60 years.
Both the British Ambassador and the M16 head officer in Harare called it wrong. So confident was the government that the winner would be Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), that the Department for International Development was already posting people to restart the aid program and help the new government rebuild the economy.
Not, since 1951, when the British authorities released Kwame Nkrumah from jail and asked him to form a government has Britain got it so wrong in Africa. Nkrumah led Ghana to independence.
After the Zimbabwe result became clear, Britain’s complaints about the conduct of the polls sounded like the bleating of a football (soccer) manager after a 4-0 thrashing.
Had the margin been 3 or 4 percent, the result could have been challenged. But even though there are many reasons not to call these polls free or fair, the margin of victory was too wide to declare the result illegitimate the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) won 61 percent of the vote to MDC’s 33 percent.
The election was also endorsed by the regional body, the southern African Development Community, and by Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian President who headed the African Union observer mission.
Obasanjo had been a powerful ally of Britain and had the casting vote in 2002 when a triumvirate of Commonwealth leaders had to decide whether Zimbabwe should be suspended from the organization. He voted for suspension with John Howard, the Australia premier rather than with Thabo Mbeki, the South African president.
Within weeks of his defeat, Tsvangirai dropped his challenge to the results, apparently without consulting the British Ambassador, Deborah Bronnert, and William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, expressed his anger. “I am extremely concerned that the MDC had to withdraw its legal challenge due to concerns over the independence of the judiciary,” he said. “I strongly believe that an independent investigation of any allegations of election irregularities would be required for the election result to be deemed credible.”
It won’t happen.
Mugabe’s jaunty boast just before the election that he would step down if defeated convinced long term Zimbabwe watchers that he was certain he would win. As predicted, the electoral roll had been carefully doctored to disenfranchise many Zimbabweans in areas where they might vote MDC, and the Zanu-PF government had made sure voter registration was restricted in rural areas where the majority of Zimbabweans live. Here, people voted overwhelmingly for Mugabe.
In 2008 the MDC worked hard. When it became clear that Mugabe was losing, vote counting was suspended and only after a month of violence was Tsvangirai declared to have won with 47 percent to Mugabe’s 43 percent. As there was no outright winner with more than 50 percent of the votes, it went to a second round.
The violence against the MDC increased and Tsvangirai pulled out. This time the election was peaceful but the MDC was overconfident and lackluster.
Party members thought they had only to turn up to win. But the party had suffered a breakaway by Welshman Ncube, a veteran opponent of Mugabe, and when Arthur Mutambara, a scientist turned politician, split from Ncube’s new party, the field of candidates widened. These defections split the opposition just enough to give Zanu-PF a chance.
Elsewhere the party leadership foisted candidates on areas where they were unpopular, disregarding local representatives. Meanwhile Mugabe’s Zanu-PF worked hard and, a first, they listened to the people, appointed popular local candidates and did not rely entirely on violence or the threat of violence to win support.
This is not to deny that Mugabe supporters in the bureaucracy and the police did not fix the voters roll or buy votes or intimidate MDC supporters, but these tactics do not explain the sheer scale of the victory.
There may also have been factors at play particular to Africa. The concept of a personal vote, cast by an individual by free choice, is not strong in Africa’s rural societies. Voting is more communal and the idea of a secret ballot sometimes not valued. I have watched voters in some countries hold up their marked ballots to boast their loyalty to a leader.
The concept of choosing rulers is new. From independence most countries were under military rule or a “Life President” until the 1990s and north of the Sahara this continued until the Arab Spring. Even today in countries like Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Congo Brazzaville, Ethiopia and Eritrea, the challenging party would not be allowed to win even if it had popular support. Zimbabwe is another state dominated by one man and one party. Many voted for Mugabe because he was the President. Elsewhere in Africa I have heard voters say to challengers: “I will vote for you when you are the President.”
There are other reasons why people might have voted for Mugabe without implying strong support for his style of leadership. Perhaps because he still wanted the job so much. Many Zimbabweans have been cowed by Zanu PF’s violence and to vote against Mugabe, who has ruled for 33 years might bring more trouble.
Others might fear that their vote would not be secret, or even that an all seeing, all knowing President would know how you voted, although with high levels of education this may now be rare. In the countryside, especially in the areas where the liberation war was fought. Mugabe remains a totemic figure.
In the towns, however, where the MDC vote was highest, there is real opposition to Mugabe. But many, maybe most, of the best educated and most ambitious have left the country. All these reasons may account for the scale of the MDC defeat. The fact is that Mugabe won and the MDC, or at least its leader, is a spent force.
Knowing how vigorously Britain tried to get Mugabe out and supported the opposition, this is a major defeat. Where does this leave Britain? Will it be possible to rebuild a relationship with Mugabe’s government? Once it was reasonably good, especially during the handover from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe when Margaret Thatcher was in power. Mugabe liked to discuss global issues with her.
In the early 1980s fear of a rebellion among the Ndebele people in southern Zimbabwe prompted Mugabe to send his troops in to the area where they killed some 20, 000 people, many in massacres. The Thatcher government stayed silent.
Amazed by the UK’s success in solving the Rhodesia problem, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was not going to sacrifice its relationship with a revolutionary it thought it had tamed. But that changed when Labor won the 1997 election. Its vision was global; it had no great interest in a post imperial relationship with former colonies.
When I asked Mugabe in 2010 where he thought things had gone wrong between the UK and Zimbabwe, he said without hesitation: “Blair. He repudiated us.” At the Edinburgh Commonwealth Summit in 1997 he had asked Blair to restore Britain’s commitment to help with buying out white-owned farms.
Blair refused. To New Labor the idea of using Clare Short’s new hugely-funded, poverty focused Department for International Development (DFID) to buy out white farmers in Zimbabwe was unthinkable. Her attempt at demonstrating anti-colonial credentials by citing her Irish ancestry infuriated him even more.
There were further incidents. M16 tried to bring in closed communications equipment but the Zimbabwe police seized it. Then, in 1999, Peter Tatchell tried to arrest Mugabe in London for being anti-gay. Mugabe was convinced that Blair had set that up.
Mugabe took the repudiation personally, seeing it as a rejection by the country he adores and abhors. He knew exactly how to hurt the British and a perfect opportunity was developing.
In 2000 he lost a referendum on changes to the Constitution which would have given him power to seize white-owned farms.
The “No” campaign was funded by white farmers. At the same time he was coming under attack from landless, jobless veterans fighters, and some who claimed to have been fighters in the war against white rule.
Mugabe had never been attacked by them before and when they heckled him he was visibly shocked, unable to continue his speech. He immediately ordered the Treasury to pay them, breaking the agreement with the International Monetary Fund to restrict spending, then he simply directed the war veterans to help themselves and seize the white-owned farms. He could have done it by legal means but it was more politically effective to do it by force.
He punished the whites, took the land by force, slapped Britain in the face, and rewarded a potentially troublesome constituency.
The TV images of white families in Zimbabwe being beaten and driven from their flaming homes incensed Britain. The Labor Government, supported regime change and the MDC and its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. The first time I met him at Westminster Tsvangirai was the only black man in the room. His aides were mainly white Zimbabweans.
This is a not a criticism of Tsvangirai. He was an authentic and brave opposition leader, but he allowed himself to be accompanied everywhere by former Rhodesians and others who had supported the illegal Ian Smith regime. There was also support from the Zimbabwe Democracy Trust, whose patrons included senior conservative politicians such as Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Ritkind and funded by British companies with interest in Zimbabwe.
It was not difficult for Zanu-PF to portray Tsvangirai and the MDC as British puppets. The entire British political establishment united around the issue. Lord Malloch Brown, a Foreign and commonwealth Office minister at the time, described how the policy was driven by extraordinary emotionalism from leftist Labor, through Liberal human rights advocates, to right wing Tories who still supported the old white Rhodesians: “They lost leverage with the South Africans who were the only government who could have done something. They lost EU support and by stripping Mugabe of his knighthood they sounded like the old colonial power trying to put down a native rebellion. I saw my role as trying to lower the temperature and put Zimbabwe back into a wider context.”
What confused and incensed the British was the failure of African leaders to condemn Mugabe. Led by Thabo Mbeki, African leaders accommodated him and blamed it all on British colonialism.
Many middle-class Africans took the view that the white farmers had it coming to them and Britain failed to honor its agreement to buy them out.
The implications of Mugabe’s victory for Britain go far beyond Zimbabwe. According to the World Bank, Africa is growing wealthier — five of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are now African: Sierra Leone, Niger, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia. And there is also growing self-confidence among Africa’s rulers.
China, whose trade with Africa kicked off this growth, is their new partner, doing big deals and not giving lectures on human rights and free and fair elections previously African presidents would have faced a wall of European countries and the US, flanked by the World Bank and the IMF, all telling him how he should run the country and its economy.
If the President wants weapons or a new presidential palace as part of an oil deal, China is happy to oblige. In countries like Kenya and Uganda, former protégés of Britain, rulers feel they no longer need to look over their shoulders for British approval of what, they do or don’t do. China and now India, Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia have given African countries options and freed them from exclusive Western control.
The growing African middle-classes in countries like Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana are driving and thriving on this economic boom. They may like to keep their wealth in London or Paris and their children at European schools but, they are becoming more self-confident, and vocal. They are freeing themselves from the more deferential attitudes of their parents’ generation.
Many are embarrassed by Western aid and want a purely business relationship. They would disapprove of Mugabe for all sorts of good reasons but they admire him because he stuck it to the Brits and won.
Even though Britain gives more aid to Africa than any other country except France and America, that no longer gives it more diplomatic clout. Annually the UK gives Ethiopia 331 million pounds, Nigeria 250m pounds and the DRC 198m pounds. But African countries have found ways of flipping the relationship so that the donors find themselves needing the African link more than the other way around.
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, for example, receives 98 million pounds ($157 million) from the UK and a huge amount more from the World Bank with British approval. Museveni was once seen as a like-minded friend and ally. His military ventures in eastern Congo which enabled his army to loot at will there strained the relationship. But then he also sent his army as peacekeepers to Somalia.
That saved the US and the UK from having to send their own troops but put them in Museveni’s debt. Kenya, Uganda’s neighbor, is Britain’s closest ally in East Africa, a bastion of British interests in the region and the Indian Ocean. President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and Vice President William Ruto face charges from the International Criminal Court for allegedly orchestrating violence during the 2007 election in Kenya. More than 1,100 people were killed during those elections.
What will Britain do if those accused suddenly refuse to attend the court in The Hague? For too long Britain has relied on its aid program to win friends in Africa. That is not to say that it simply uses aid to bribe governments. On the contrary.
DFID has strict guidelines about how the money is used; it is aimed at helping the poorest, not buying favors or votes at the UN. So African governments cannot use the aid as they might like and Africa’s growing and powerful middle classes are unaffected by aid and even feel patronized by it. The lives of the rural poor and slum dwellers may not be important to them.
What they do care about is the image of their countries and its portrayal in the media. That image is driven by the aid industry. Pictures of starving babies, slums and refugees are not good advertisements for the new booking Africa. The images needed by western governments and aid agencies to garner political support for aid are damaging to the image that many Africans would like their countries to have: modern, successful and self reliant.
While they would certainly not want their countries to be ruled by Mugabe many Africans are quietly congratulating him on outsmarting Britain.
The message is: Treat us with respect as you would any other countries in the world. Stop assuming you know what is best for us. So where does British policy go now? The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) once had a substantial body of diplomats who had immersed themselves in Africa and understood what makes these complicated countries work or fail. This has been allowed to die out.
Diplomats are now moved around from Tajikistan to Tanzania, no regional experience required. Africa is left to the aid workers and the Chinese.
Britain is missing an opportunity here. Economists predict that Africa’s population will double from one to two billion by 2050 and if education, infrastructure and manufacturing are developed it could become the most dynamic continent in the 21st century.
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Richard Dowden is a British journalist who has specialized in African issues. Since 1975, he has worked for several British media and for the past eight years he has been the Executive Director of the Royal African Society.