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China And Russia Blunder On Africa

THE British representative to the United Nations calls it a missed opportunity. The British foreign secretary describes it as incomprehensible. The French ambassador to the UN told reporters that it was a failure.


They were reacting to the Chinese and Russian veto on July 11 of a UN Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe. The move would have condemned the violence during the widely disputed re-election of President Robert Mugabe, tightened a travel ban and assets-freeze on Mugabe and 13 close associates, and supported mediation to resolve the country’s political crisis.

Even though the South African-mediated talks about talks between Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change have started afresh in the wake of the UN debacle, the pressure for compromise has been relieved, at least temporarily, on the Mugabe regime.

While the UN veto may have satisfied the short-term political and economic interests of Russia and China, the two countries may have made a strategic blunder, setting Moscow and Beijing on a long-term collision course with African electorates.

But, contrary to the statement by Foreign Secretary David Miliband of Britain, the veto by the Chinese and Russians is as comprehensible as it is disappointing.

While Beijing and Moscow may theoretically have voted against the UN resolution in keeping with their own views of non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states, China and Russia are in effect supporting their own narrow national self-interests.

This is really about their burgeoning interests in the mineral sector in Africa, the last frontier of such opportunities in a voracious marketplace.

Even though Beijing and Moscow may believe that the combination of big infrastructure projects and support for Africa’s political elites may protect their investments on the continent, the last laugh may be at their expense.

Given their own limitations when it comes to domestic political freedoms, the leaders in Beijing and Moscow may not appreciate that the battle to achieve democracy in Africa has been a hard-fought liberation struggle, not something graciously handed to electorates by charitable rulers. Foreigners who fail to bolster democratic freedoms may be accepted by some African elites, but ultimately, they could be made to pay a price by African electorates.

“China and Russia have stood with Mugabe against the people of Zimbabwe,” the US ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, fumed after the vote, expressing an opinion that is likely to be shared by Zimbabwean –– and other African –– voters. The situation in Zimbabwe today could occur tomorrow in Congo, where there are growing concerns about how Kinshasa is mortgaging long-term revenue to Chinese mining firms for short-term gains.

Political change in Zimbabwe is as inevitable as it will likely be increasingly painful. Mugabe may have been able to rig recent elections, but he cannot rig the economy.

With inflation now at virtually immeasurable 2 million%, things can only get worse. The ruling party’s recent issuing of a 100-billion Zimbabwe dollar note is a sign of how much damage has been done.

There is no hope of economic salvation without a legitimate government, which is why a government of transitional unity as a precursor to fresh elections is the only way for any meaningful negotiations to proceed. Anything else, such as the attempts led by South Africa to create a government of national unity comprising elements of Zanu PF and the opposition will amount to nothing more than legitimating what the African Union has condemned as an unfair election –– and that cannot be a formula for reform and recovery.

In those circumstances, the opposition would be better off sitting out the crisis as a government in exile, biding its time until the mediators change their tune, or the economic reality takes over.

As for China and Russia, their UN veto reinforces the image that they are no friends of the majority of Africans who today live in democracies. Forget mooted boycotts of the Olympic Games.

The greatest sanction of all will be their rejection by 750 million sub-Saharan Africans, those who, in the future, prefer not to accept the costs of doing business with such outsiders.

*Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation.


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