Is elitist patriotism region’s bane?

By Blessing-Miles Tendi

THE centrality of an overtly authoritarian nationalism to Zimbabwean politics is unparalleled in modern-day southern Africa. A form of Zimbabwean exceptionalism perhaps? Well, specula

tion never killed the philosopher, and the political scientist never shied away from observable truths.


Zimbabwe’s increasingly intolerant nationalism has rankled and perplexed many within the human rights community. But, as if Zimbabwe has not been a painful enough thorn in the flesh of the human rights community, there exists the possibility that Zimbabwe’s blatantly authoritarian nationalism may be a forerunner to the emergence of various authoritarian nationalisms in southern Africa.


For southern Africa is unwilling to censure and act on Zimbabwe’s authoritarian politics. Notwithstanding legitimate allegations of voter irregularities in Zimbabwe’s 2005 parliamentary election, southern African governments endorsed Zanu PF’s victory. This was the third time in five years, following 2000 and 2002, that southern Africa has approved a suspect Zimbabwean election.


In the last three years, southern Africa’s nationalist parties have robustly reasserted their political dominance. Recent national elections in Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have seen the nationalist parties Swapo, ANC, Frelimo and Zanu PF, respectively, reaffirm their political hegemony. Political indicators also point to the Eduardo dos Santos-led nationalist MPLA party maintaining its political hegemony in Angola.


Southern Africa’s nationalist political parties are fostering closer elitist regional ties through various forums like the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and annual nationalist conferences of historical solidarity.

What may be unfolding is an imposing southern African exceptionalism, best defined as a fervent and elitist patriotic nationalism underpinned by the historical solidarity of colonial subjugation. Liberation nationalism may be fast becoming the defining political framework governing inter-state relations in southern Africa.


President Robert Mugabe’s reply to the charges of misrule levelled against his government by the West and local human rights groups is: “Zimbabwe has been chosen as the battleground for a concerted effort on the part of the West to push back the clock of the African revolution in southern Africa to perpetuate white dominance. We dare not fall or fail millions of indigenous people of southern Africa whose sovereignty stands gravely threatened.”


Sadc’s position on the highly disputed 2002 presidential election has been one that regards human rights as an internal affair, and Mugabe duly elected following the constitution of Zimbabwe as a sovereign state, and not the expectations of Western countries. Southern Africa’s nationalist parties seem to buy Mugabe’s message.


Last week, South African President Thabo Mbeki rebuked international criticism of Zimbabwe when he said: “You get reports that something like three million people have died in the Congo over the last few years because of the wars that are going on, but the amount of noise that you will hear about Zimbabwe, and no noise about the Congo, must surely raise questions as to why. Why is it so easy to ignore the death of three million people and make extraordinary volumes of noise about another country where only a few people have died? There is something not right about it.”

Mbeki is right to lament the lack of international attention and efforts to tackle the crisis in the Congo — a country approximately the size of the whole of Western Europe where effective state control has almost vaporised. Africa has many other trouble spots, the Darfur crisis in Sudan being a particular eyesore, but to use the evidently skewed international focus as an alibi for inaction on Zimbabwe is to miss the point completely.


Mbeki has made commendable efforts to resolve complex crises in African countries ranging from the Ivory Coast to the Congo but prefers to sidestep the less intricate Zimbabwe crisis in his backyard, which South Africa, with its considerable leverage on Zimbabwe, should have already resolved. There is something not right about it, too.


Much has been made of the Economic Community of West African States-forced resignation of an illegitimate Togolese government, imposed by Togo’s military after the sudden death of Togo’s president Gnassingbe Eyadema in March. The disparity, in comparison to southern Africa’s inertness over Zimbabwe, is striking. If West African countries can stand up against dictatorial tendencies, why is it that southern Africa fails to do the same?


The answer lies in the patriotism of southern Africa’s nationalist political elite. Former “brothers in arms” always stick up for each other.


But let’s not be pious about West Africa. Nigeria’s last election was flawed, and its West African neighbours did not condemn the result. For example, West Africa endorsed Nigeria’s blemished election result, like Zimbabwe’s dubious elections since 2000 have been endorsed by southern Africa. West Africa has much to do in the way of advancing human rights by guaranteeing peace and stability, promoting religious tolerance and staging open and fair elections.


Human rights are trampled on with regular profundity throughout West Africa. There is little substantive evidence pointing to the evolution of a humanitarian enlightenment there.


However, nationalism in its many variants seems to be on the rise internationally. Since September 11, we have witnessed increased American sovereigntism, the critique of multiculturalism and immigration is gaining momentum in western Europe, nationalist orators are garnering political capital in eastern Europe, and Japanese nationalism — closely aligned to possible remilitarisation — is a growing reality.


Perhaps, then, there is nothing exceptional about southern Africa at all because its political events might be part and parcel of a global trend, albeit a very odious one. Democracy and human rights are far from safe in our time. Illiberal forces bent on rolling back the great wheel of history are still with us.


*Blessing-Miles Tendi is a freelance writer.