TO many Africans on the continent and even beyond, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is a hero.
Excited crowds greet him every time he graces African Union and Sadc summits. And when he gives his annual “history lecture” at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, many on the African continent and the global south in general look at him in awe and secretly admire his courage for standing up to “Uncle Sam”.
By excoriating former United States president George W Bush and ex-British prime minister Tony Blair for warmongering in Iraq and Afghanistan and telling Blair to “keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe” Mugabe was presenting himself as a strong leader with the courage to challenge Western hegemony.
Mugabe is revered not only because to many he fought and helped defeat colonial domination, he is also admired because he is a clever orator who has carefully crafted an anti-imperialism narrative that has found resonance with African leaders who revile the West for asking pesky questions about human rights and democracy.
Many African leaders would rather just get the much-needed aid and not be asked irritating questions about their governance record. This explains why China’s “no questions asked” approach has found many takers.
So when Mugabe tells the West to go hang, he is saying the things that many talk about in private, but would dare not say publicly lest they lose that much-coveted budgetary support which Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo calls “dead aid”.
But behind the aura of heroism is a cunning dictator with an insatiable thirst for power and on whose watch one of Africa’s most promising African countries has been ravaged by conflict and poverty.
In 2000 when his decades-long stranglehold on Zimbabwean politics came under threat from the newly-formed Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Mugabe unleashed a violent pogrom that left hundreds murdered and thousands more dismembered. He used a similar strategy to liquidate Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu in the early 1980s when it stood in the way of his one-party state agenda.
A North Korean-trained military crack team was dispatched to the southwestern part of the country and its operations left 20 000 ethnic Ndebeles dead.
The international community paid a blind eye, as Mugabe was still their darling, having charmed them with his British-style chivalrous demeanor and flawless mastery of the English language.
The European Union, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada slapped Mugabe and his coterie with travel restrictions and an asset freeze after bloody elections in 2000 and 2002. But looking back it is almost as if the restrictions were a godsend for Mugabe and his party.
Faced with growing opposition internally and externally, he set out to craft an anti-imperialism narrative whose central message was that the West was out to get him and sanctions were a “regime change” strategy.
While the travel ban and asset freeze did not create a rally-around-the-flag effect, Mugabe has carefully manipulated them to portray himself as a victim of Western conspiracy. His regime-change refrain has struck a cord with many on the continent who have a cynical view of the West and doubt its sincerity in helping Africa overcome extreme poverty and deprivation.
Mugabe and his henchmen have couched the sanctions narrative in the language of colonial injustices and invariably the land issue, emotive as it is, has become the centre of the debate.
They have advanced a very compelling argument that the West wants to punish Mugabe because he has dared to smash colonial vestiges by redistributing land to black people. African leaders have fallen for it.
They have looked the other way as Mugabe has thrown away the democracy rulebook to stay in power by hook and by crook.
After Mugabe lost the 2008 presidential election to the MDC-T’s Morgan Tsvangirai, African leaders in Sadc led by then South African president Thabo Mbeki, forced Tsvangirai to a re-run. Mugabe launched a violent run-off campaign, which forced Tsvangirai to withdraw from the race.
In a sham one-man poll Mugabe declared himself the winner and again Sadc leaders looked the other way. They then stitched a political agreement in which the two would co-govern, but strangely, Tsvangirai was made the junior partner as prime minister in spite of having won the first round of elections.
For four years following the consummation of the power-sharing government Mugabe openly defied Sadc, refusing to fully implement the terms of the political pact that gave birth to the coalition government. He then unilaterally declared an election in July 2013, which he allegedly rigged.
Not surprisingly, Sadc gave the election a clean bill of health in spite of glaring irregularities that included a shambolic voter register, outright manipulation of the public media and intimidation of voters. When the opposition complained to Sadc’s election observer mission head, Tanzania Foreign Affairs minister Bernard Membe, told them they would never win an election “in a hundred years as long as sanctions remained in place”.
Mugabe has also used the sanctions narrative to mask his atrocious governance record. When his chaotic land grab plunged the once self-sufficient country into hunger and starvation, he blamed it on sanctions.
In 2008 Zimbabwe became the poster country for economic collapse with record hyperinflation of 200 million percent. Mugabe blamed it on sanctions. He claimed that the economic collapse was a result of sanctions that had precluded his government from accessing credit from multilateral funding institutions.
What he has not told his supporters is that, in fact, Zimbabwe lost its borrowing rights because of its poor repayment record. Zimbabwe started defaulting on its payments to the International Monetary Fund in 1998, way before the imposition of restrictive measures in 2002.
But the biggest lie Mugabe and his propagandists have repeated is that Zimbabwe is under a blanket economic embargo. Nothing can be further from the truth. The travel and asset freeze has targeted less than 200 individuals.
To be fair, a handful of corporations that are seen as undermining democratic transition in Zimbabwe have also been targeted. But unlike the UN-backed sanctions on Rhodesia after Ian Smith’s 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence, Zimbabwe is still able to trade with virtually every country in the world.
Unlike Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Smith’s Rhodesia (as colonial Zimbabwe was known) was isolated both politically and economically, forcing him to pursue import substitution industrialisation and other sanctions-busting strategies. Rhodesia became self-sufficient and Smith was able to build a robust manufacturing sector whose contribution to GDP would have matched that of today’s advanced economies because Smith could not import or export to any country.
The truth of the matter is that Zimbabwe is not under a trade embargo as Mugabe and Zanu PF allege. A quick glance at Zimbabwe’s trade data shows that the European Union is still one of Zimbabwe’s biggest trading partners and that the country still does good business with the US.
In fact, there is more trade between Harare and Brussels than there is between Harare and Beijing, in spite of Mugabe’s “Look East” rhetoric. In addition, over the last 10 years, the same Western countries Mugabe maligns have poured in humanitarian aid worth billions of dollars to support food aid, health care, education, water and sanitation among other things.
Perhaps it is time for a strategic reconsideration on the restrictive measures by the West. I posit the point that they have been inimical to democratic transition as Mugabe has manipulated them to his political advantage and maybe it is time the West called Mugabe’s bluff and removed them.
He is desperate for legitimacy and is prepared to broker a deal with them. He has a legitimacy crisis and is also desperate for financial aid. His charm offensive to civil society, the media and business is part of a grand strategy to re-engage with his former adversaries. He has also kept the door open for negotiation with international financial institutions, signalling that he wants to negotiate.
However, the relaxation of the travel ban and asset freeze must be calibrated in response to institutionalisation of genuine reforms by the regime. Mugabe must fully implement the constitution, including the establishment of a devolved state in line with new constitutional provisions. Legislative reform must be undertaken, the electronic media must be freed up and the voter register must be cleaned up before the next election. This is the only way to ensure a genuinely free and fair election that produces a legitimate government in Zimbabwe.
Mangongera is a Zimbabwean researcher. He is currently a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC in the United States. He writes in his personal capacity.