WHEN African politicians tiptoe around Zimbabweâ€™s nightmare, Robert Mugabe, it is understandable.
Many of them are practitioners of Mugabeâ€™s cynical politics or have benefited from such. When academics vent for Mugabe, that is a different matter.
It is reason for concern. Alas, there has been a lot of that from some of Africaâ€™s brightest minds. Africaâ€™s intellectual class is usually the most unsparing critics of African politicians. But the two groups tend to find common ground when the issue is Western imperialism.
There was a time in some intellectual circles when African leaders literally got away with murder if they could link their countriesâ€™ travails to colonialism or neo-colonialism.
That trend reached its peak during the Cold War, when the rivalry between the capitalist and communist blocs wreaked havoc on African soils. Accordingly, opportunistic African leaders â€” civilian and military â€”readily mobilised their people to fight the external evil.
The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s took away the cover for repression and inept leadership. Pro-Western African regimes could no longer repress their people with the excuse that they were guarding against communism. And pro-Soviet regimes could no longer perpetuate totalitarianism in the guise of anti-imperialism.
In country after country, the people began to focus their attention on the internal political process and the quality of their leadership.
They recognised that the imperial presidency was not consistent with peopleâ€™s political and economic aspirations. For academics, the fervour for related treatise on imperialism began to wane correspondingly.
Rather than blame imperialists, they increasingly acknowledged that the quality of life of African people depended more on internal forces than external machinations.
For some African intellectuals, it seems that this realisation has been jettisoned with regard to Mugabe. They have fervently revived the colonialist/neo-colonialist thesis to explain Africaâ€™s greatest political tragedy at this time (with all due consideration for Darfur and eastern Congo).
Actually, some of Mugabeâ€™s defenders are only being consistent with their scholarly identity. The essential argument in defence of Mugabe is that Zimbabweâ€™s economy has crumbled because of Western economic sanctions. And the sanctions were imposed because of Mugabeâ€™s redress of colonial injustice. Both parts of the argument are only half-truths. They do not justify support for Mugabeâ€™s morbid clinging to power.
Sure, Mugabe inherited a vexing inequity. Whites controlled about 70% of Zimbabweâ€™s most arable lands, though they constitute a small percentage of Zimbabwean farmers and population.
Mugabeâ€™s solution was to allow activists to yank farmlands from whites without due compensation and without ensuring the expertise necessary to keep those farms as productive.
In effect, he gambled with the countryâ€™s economy. If agricultural production collapsed, the economy would collapse. And sure enough both did. This fact is conveniently sidestepped in the imperialist arguments â€” that sanctions are to blame for Zimbabweâ€™s economic collapse.
Yes, sanctions hurt, but only to a degree. Many countries with well-managed economies have survived sanctions. For years, for instance, apartheid South Africa thumbed its nose at the world despite United Nations sanctions.
Sure, many Western countries violated the sanctions. But then sanctions are always violated by countries that have something to gain in doing so. The sanctions against Zimbabwe are no exception. Even arms are being shipped in there.
Significantly, Namibia and South Africa faced similar inequity in economic power when the black majority took over in both countries. In neither country did the leaders resort to rash policies that would have constituted cutting off oneâ€™s nose to spite oneâ€™s face.
In Namibia, President Sam Nujoma and Prime Minister Hage Geingob were both Swapo Marxists. But once in office they had the political wisdom to adopt pragmatic policies in both racial and ideological matters.
With a mixture of negotiations and cajoling they succeeded in steering the country to relative racial equity without unsettling the economy.
The successive presidency of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki did the same in South Africa. Even if Mugabeâ€™s government was justified in its approach to redressing the farmland inequity, the consequence has been disastrous and the people have a democratic right to hold him accountable. He cannot hide behind ostensible nationalism and racialist rhetoric.
In the most recently contested elections, the people decided they had had enough, but Mugabe and his allies would not let the verdict stand. They turned the oppositionâ€™s evident victory into results that supposedly warranted a run-off.
Then they let loose the police and military on the opposition, abducting, imprisoning and clobbering them. Even ifÂ Zimbabweâ€™s downfall was engineered by the West, Mugabe has to be answerable to his people, the electorate.
What he is doing, instead, is thumbing his nose not so much at the West but at Zimbabweans. Their suffering does not even seem to perturb him. At points in Zimbabweâ€™s history, Mugabe was an asset. Now he and his cronies are a tragic liability.
Democracies have been known to let go of their most revered leaders when a different kind of leadership is called for.
After World War II, for instance, the British voted out Winston Churchill, the prime minister whose inspired leadership saw them through the perilous years.
In South Africa, Nelson Mandela stepped down of his own accord. He would still be president today if he had wanted to.
But wisdom and love of his country dictated otherwise. Apologists for Mugabe have dubbed opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai a stooge for the West.
The same appellation was used to discredit opponents of Africaâ€™s post-independence totalitarians. And one thought we had gone beyond that. In the words of Shakespeare, â€œThere is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.â€
The tide for Mugabeâ€™s departure came a long time ago, but he did not take it. Now Zimbabweans are paying a steep price for his egomania. He should go. â€” The Punch (Nigeria).
BY MINEBERE IBELEMA