Monday, June 30, 2008

Yes, there is such a thing as a regime that is odious enough to rebel against.

This week we've been reminded again how important a gift democracy is, by watching another country in which it has been brutally suppressed.

Robert Mugabe once led a successful guerilla war against the racist white government of Ian Smith in the 1970's and 1980's in what was then Rhodesia. Since winning it though he has led Zimbabwe pretty much alone. He has also proven one of the world's premier despots, especially over the past decade.

His record of abysmal failure is actually pretty astounding. Keep in mind that his country was once the breadbasket of the region, and was one of the few sub-Saharan African countries where nobody starved. That ended over the past decade as he sent in gangs of thugs to take over farms. The farms were white-owned and he justified it as 'redistributing to the masses.' Only the 'masses' were actually gangs of his supporters who knew nothing about farming, to the extent that starvation is now widespread in his country. Many white farmers were shot or hacked to death either when they refused to leave their land or if they didn't leave it fast enough (as an example to others to leave faster.) His brutality isn't limited to whites though (and it should be noted that not all whites in Zimbabwe supported the Rhodesian government either-- some were very progressive at that time and stood shoulder to shoulder with the guerilla movement.) Opponents of his regime, black and white, have similarly been brutalized.

The latest chapter in Mugabe's saga began this past March. An election was held in Zimbabwe, and both exit polls and other indications were that Mugabe's main opponent, Morgan Tsvangarai, had won an outright majority. The electoral commission however (which is controlled by Mugabe loyalists) delayed releasing the vote totals for five weeks. By that time the election results had clearly been tampered with, and the commission released totals that showed Tsvangarai winning, but not by the absolute majority he would need to avoid a runoff.

Although Tsvangarai made it clear that he considered the election results fraudulent, he agreed to participate in a runoff. Virtually everyone in Zimbabwe who had voted for another candidate (primarily Simba Makone) was expected to vote for Tsvangarai in the runoff.

So then Mugabe went back to the tactics he knows how to use. He threatened if he lost the election he would go back into the hills and start his guerilla war again. But there was no need for him to say that. His fighters are already in every town. He unleashed his gangs of thugs. They murdered scores of Tsvangarai's supporters. And he also used the tools of the state, raiding the offices of Tsvangarai's party, detaining and torturing supporters, and breaking up campaign rallies. Tsvangarai himself was detained several times. Finally, Tsvangarai announced last week he was withdrawing from the runoff after reports surfaced that Mugabe-backed militias planned on mass murders of Tsvangarai supporters at the polls. Mugabe continued to claim that the election this past Friday was 'free and fair,' but obviously it is the farthest thing an election could be from free or fair.

Everyone agrees on this point. Both the African Union and the United Nations issued resolutions condemning the violence. Even Nelson Mandela took time out from the festivities surrounding his ninetieth birthday party to verbally slap down Mugabe (once united with him in the struggle to free southern Africa) and criticize the 'failure of leadership in Zimbabwe.' And it is likely that there will be more sanctions.

So what? I've concluded that sanctions never or almost never work. Mugabe has little to fear. They don't work because 1. they actually strengthen a despotic leader by giving him an excuse and an external enemy to blame for the problems of the country (want proof? We've had sanctions on Cuba, Iran and N. Korea for a combined 136 years and the sanctions have done nothing to weaken any of them.); 2. Sanctions often produce more suffering for the people they are supposed to help and not for the tyrants. Zimbabwe may produce very little food anymore, but even if things get so bad that there is just one loaf of bread left in the country then Mugabe will get to eat it; and 3. Sanctions only produce profits for black marketeers who will smuggle whatever isn't supposed to be sold in or out anyway. Even in the case of Rhodesia, the Smith government was not toppled by international pressure or western sanctions (as much as we might want to wish it were so) but frankly by the successful guerilla war led by Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo (that's a fact. Period.)

There are some who suggest military intervention. I disagree with that. A military intervention in a place like Zimbabwe would likely just provoke an endless conflict, and I'm not sure what exactly we are supposed to do once we are there. It would also smack of colonialism. Even an African-led intervention would likely just inflame regional tensions and not achieve anything.

Instead, I would suggest that when we have a despot who is as recalcitrant and brutal as Mugabe, it may be time to use his own tactics against him. Rarely do I support violent revolution as an alternative to democratic reform, but clearly the latter is impossible in Zimbabwe, and there are many people by now who are ready to risk their lives to fight against Mugabe (that is shown both by the number of people who boycotted Friday's election-- despite the fact that no purple finger paint makes them targets, and also the number who were willing to openly support Tsvangarai when he was running.) This may the very rare case where I would suggest supporting armed opposition groups, including those who may be willing to wage a guerilla war within Zimbabwe. Supporting them with political support, but also with arms and covert operations.

It bothers me to say that, but it is clear by now that no other option than continuing repression or violent revolution is left for Zimbabwe.


Anonymous said...

I was talking to a friend from Zimbabwe about this issue this morning. He said he backs McCain for president because McCain has a better policy for dealing with Mugabe than does Obama. I'm not sure I believe that, but he seemed pretty sure of himself. Have either of the candidates actually talked about a foreign policy with Zimbabwe that you know of?

Eli Blake said...


I don't believe that either of them has. And unless asked, they likely won't (other than vacuous statements condemning the violence or something like that.) For a candidate to comment more deeply on an issue that isn't required gains him little and opens him up to making a gaffe or at least saying something that will be spun politically against him (i.e. Obama's comment that he would attack bin Laden in Pakistan if he had reliable intelligence pinpointing his location.)

It's unfortunate that the candidates are so risk-averse these days that they don't say anything about a topic like this, but in today's world of open mikes, cell phone cameras and recorders, along with legions of highly partisan spin doctors on the other side ready to pounce, I suppose it is understandable.

Anonymous said...

I suppose you're right. It's awful that politics has to be such a spectacle. The candidates are reluctant to even talk about important issues like this for fear of being portrayed as rash or out of touch with the mainstream.

Considering McCain's support for torture, surveilling of American citizens, and his almost compulsive desire for war, I don't see how he is the man to stand up to brutes like Mugabe.

Contrast that with Obama's commitment to human rights. I consider myself a conservative, but I am incapable of supporting John McCain. I am more inclined to trust Obama to do the right thing under any situation.

Civil rights and human rights are American rights (at least they ought to be). The only patriotic thing for me to do is put our shared values above my political preferences.

Eli Blake said...


I agree with you about Obama. His past visits to Kenya and his Kenyan roots mean that he will probably take more of an interest in Africa than McCain will, and it's a region we cannot afford to go on ignoring.

Zach said...

I totally agree with you on sanctions not being right for this situation. First of all, as you have pointed out, they just don't work. The one thing you miss is the connection between two of your points. Yes, if there is one loaf of bread, Mugabe will have it. And yes, sanctions create a black market. But, more importantly, the black market often is run by and benefits the same people the sanctions are meant to hurt.

Look at Iraq and Cuba.

Also, look at Somalia. Look at what the combination of sanctions and military interventions did in Somalia. I hate to generalize about a whole continent, but... I think that the dynamics of sanctions and foreign (especially white) military presence is dramatically different in Africa than elsewhere. The combination of religious (Christian-Arab), ethnic (literally dozens of tribes in each nation), and racial tensions, along with the region being among the poorest in the world, creates a dangerous and unique situation.

Eli Blake said...

Unfortunately, military intervention anyplace usually results in a lot more headaches than what we started out trying to fix.