HomeOpinionA shameful cop-out

A shameful cop-out

By Allister Sparks

IT is with some reluctance that I take issue with my friend and fellow journalist Trevor Ncube on a matter concerning Zimbabwe, of which he is a deepl

y concerned citizen. But I cannot let his argument, set out in an article in his own newspapers, the Mail & Guardian and the Zimbabwe Independent, go unchallenged that personal economic sanctions Western countries have imposed on key members of the Mugabe administration have contributed to the mess in Zimbabwe.

The essence of Ncube’s argument is that these sanctions have not only achieved nothing but have been counter-productive. Firstly, because they have estranged those countries diplomatically from the Zimbabwean government and so diminished their ability to influence it; and secondly, because they have enabled President Robert Mugabe to blame the sanctions, rather than his own policies, for Zimbabwe’s catastrophic decline.

Ncube says opposition and civic society groups in Zimbabwe have found it difficult to rebut that line of argument by Mugabe.

Moreover, “Many on the African continent regard the sanctions as a white racist response to land reform in Zimbabwe.”

Ncube suggests this is why bodies such as the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and the African Union (AU) have found it difficult to criticise Mugabe and his policies publicly, “because they fear being seen as supporting the Western sanctions, that are undeniably affecting ordinary people, or as puppets of the West”.

I find this line of argument, to blame Western sanctions for the African countries’ complicit silence in the face of Mugabe’s multiple crimes against humanity, disingenuous.

It may well be, as Ncube suggests, that these African leaders are afraid to be seen criticising one of their own who has become a tyrant. But who is at fault here; the Western leaders who are denouncing the tyrant or the African leaders who are too scared to raise their voices?

Does ethnic solidarity require tolerance of tyranny because they are your people doing the bad things? Ask that of Beyers Naude or Braam Fischer or the thousands of other white South Africans who stood up against apartheid.

There is a deep and ongoing problem here that has been damaging Africa since the earliest days of independence, and finding pathetic excuses and scapegoats will not rectify it. African leaders must summon the courage to challenge the delinquent leaders among them. Until they do, Africa as a whole will not acquire the respect it deserves in the international community.

Mugabe is not the only African leader to benefit from this kind of racial protectionism. The most notorious was of course Idi Amin, the “Butcher of Uganda,” who ruled over that hapless land for eight years in the 1970s, during which he ran a regime characterised by monstrous human rights abuses.

Never once was he criticised by his fellow African leaders, who not only tolerated his atrocities but allowed him to host a summit meeting of the Organisation of African Unity in 1975 and become head of the OAU — resulting in the travesty of Amin’s Uganda being appointed to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

Amin was eventually toppled only because he tried to annex a piece of neighbouring Tanzania, causing President Julius Nyerere to send in his army and overthrow him. Referring to the Amin phenomenon after his retirement, Nyerere made the observation that Africa’s greatest single weakness was its failure to confront such tyrants among its own ranks.

Sadly his reprimand has gone unheeded.

There was the thuggish Sani Abacha, who ruled over Nigeria for 13 years from 1985. Not only did Abacha loot his country of some US$4 billion, he had hundreds of political opponents executed and imprisoned. His atrocities reached a climax with the execution of the Ogoni activist and poet, Ken Saro-Wiwa, which resulted in Nigeria being suspended from the Commonwealth.

President Nelson Mandela, to his credit, played a role in bringing about that suspension with a powerful denunciation of Abacha at the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Auckland — but later I was to hear Deputy President Thabo Mbeki offer a veiled defence of the tyrant in an address in Johannesburg.

There were others, too — Mobutu Sese Seko, the kleptocratic ruler of the Democratic Republic of Congo (which he called Zaire) for 32 years, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who ruled and plundered the Central African Republic from 1966 to 1974.

None was ever criticised by his fellow African leaders. As Vaclav Havel once said, he had encountered two types of people during his long years as a fighter for human rights, a prisoner and eventually Czech president. There were “those with the soul of a collaborationist and those who were comfortable denying authority.”

By their silence, Africa’s leaders have made themselves collaborators with their continent’s tyrants. To blame that silence, that timidity, on Western sanctions is a shameful cop-out.

Ncube contends that Western policies of sanctions, criticism and isolation have not achieved anything, and that may be so. But I refuse to accept that a political leader who has been responsible for the murder of at least 20 000 political opponents in the 1980s, who continues to beat up, imprison and even kill anyone who dares oppose him, who has brought his country down from glowing promise to dire poverty in a handful of years, destroyed the principle of property rights so as to shatter its economy and plunge it into the world’s worst inflation rate, who has driven a quarter of his population into economic exile and bulldozed hundreds of thousands of its poorest urban dwellers into oblivion with his Operation Murambatsvina, should get away without a word or gesture of criticism from any quarter.

Tyranny cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. And if the African leaders won’t challenge it, someone else must.

Nor do I accept that there was nothing more effective African leaders could have done about Mugabe other than “quiet diplomacy”. Ncube says he doesn’t think there is any discerning observer who believes South Africa supports Mugabe’s policies. Maybe not. But Mugabe has used Africa’s silence, and especially Mbeki’s, in a massive propaganda campaign to tell his own people that the whole of Africa is on his side in his heroic struggle against the imperialist West — and that is what has saved him so far.

Had Africa, and especially the frontline states of Sadc, raised their voices in unison to tell him publicly that what he was doing was unacceptable; I doubt he would have survived it.

At the very least, they could have warned Mugabe last March, when he began his latest campaign of beating up opposition supporters and throwing them in jail, that if he didn’t stop such an obvious attempt to cripple the opposition, they would not validate his coming election or recognise his new government. That he would then be heading an illegitimate regime in their eyes.

Don’t tell me that wouldn’t have had a salutary effect on him.

But they lacked the courage even for that.

Sparks is a veteran SA-based journalist.

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