Is Mugabe the real problem in Zimbabwe?

By Matthew Parris (THE TIMES, 28/06/08):

In politics as in our personal lives, just six words comprise one of the commonest falsehoods around. Those six words are: “It can’t go on like this.” But it can. I’ve come to the melancholy conclusion that in Zimbabwe it must.

This weekend there will be voices in our Prime Minister’s ear suggesting how in one bound he might cast off his dithering reputation. To help to broker the toppling of Robert Mugabe (they will whisper) might be just the sort of history-making that rescued Margaret Thatcher from doldrums at home, before Galtieri invaded the Falklands. In The Times this week Lord (Paddy) Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon suggested that intervention may become necessary. Mr Brown will think hard about this; list the pros; list the cons; dither; and finally decide it’s all too difficult.

Well let’s hear it for dithering. Beware the widely held opinion that all we need is Robert Mugabe’s head on a stick. In Iraq we called this the decapitation strategy, and duly secured the required head – Saddam’s – on the right stick. Then it all went wrong. The ingredients necessary for a liberal democracy were not, it turned out, there. Why should things be different in Africa?

Not even the most hot-headed interventionist (I assume) is seriously proposing a unilateral British invasion; and not many propose invasion by a coalition of Western powers. It should anyway be doubted whether this would be militarily possible. Zimbabwe is a landlocked country and the active co-operation of her neighbours should be key to any kind of occupation, however temporary. That being so, it would make more political sense for the intervention to be African-led, or at least appear to be so, by one or more of her neighbours.

The idea probably being canvassed would be for an African ultimatum to Harare, stiffened by the threat of a Western-backed but African-led invasion, with or without the use of European or American service personnel, but perhaps with a measure of Western military support and reconstruction money behind the scenes. It is possible that a mix of determined international moral exhortation, and private cajolery, development-aid bribery and threats, could secure such an apparently African initiative.

Not only would this invasion be doable, it would probably never prove necessary: the threat alone should be sufficient to trigger a coup within Mugabe’s Zanu (PF) party, whereupon the old man would be dispatched, imprisoned or exported, and a leading group of Zanu (PF)-backed politicans and generals would take temporary power, promising to talk to the MDC, and hold elections as soon as practicable.

So far – it might seem – so good. And if there were televised scenes of crowd jubilation as a statue of Mugabe was torn from its plinth in a municipal square somewhere in Harare (or more likely Bulawayo), so much the better.

But after that, what? Stop for a minute and ask yourself this: who has really been running Zimbabwe for the past five years? Do you honestly think it’s just an old, deluded man, a King Lear minus the humanity, who has been organising the hit squads, arm-twisting the judiciary and turning the police into a private militia? Is it really only Robert Mugabe who has been diverting Zimbabwe’s resources into private pockets?

Of course not. This is the whole culture of the governing party, Zanu (PF). You’ve seen the TV pictures of Zanu (PF) “thugs” rampaging across the bush with iron bars, in pursuit of Morgan Tsvangirai’s supporters. That word “thug” is handy for the Western media because it throws a linguistic cordon round what we want to distinguish as an horrific minority, virtually unconnected with what we assume to be the great majority of peace-loving Zimbabweans… er, Zanu (PF) supporters. Or so they were and continued to be, through all Mugabe’s early atrocities, his massacres in Matabeleland and confiscations of white farmers’ lands, until the economy hit the rocks so hard that they could no longer be sure of their next meal. Only then did they start to desert, and we may suppose that to this day, millions in the rural areas have still not deserted.

Mugabe is not unpopular in Zimbabwe today because his Government has been autocratic and brutal. He is not unpopular because the minority (but substantial) Matabele tribe have been persecuted, killed and dispossessed by a governing party whose power base is among the Mashona majority. He is not unpopular because he and his wife are greedy and flaunt their wealth, or because corruption in his Government is widespread. He is unpopular because his administration is broken and there is nothing for ordinary people to eat.

Many Zimbabweans hunger not for liberal democracy, but for food. By corollary, much of Morgan Tsvangirai’s power base is either an urban minority or among the minority tribes who have received a raw deal from the distribution of resources by Zanu (PF). They too, many of them, hunger not for liberal democracy but a turning of the tables. Unless we are careful, today’s TV pictures may tomorrow be thrown into reverse, and we may watch those who were once in flight, now in pursuit; and those who were once in pursuit, now in flight; the iron bars having changed hands. The Matabele in history were always a more warlike people than the Mashona pastoralists. Bulawayo (their capital) means “place of slaughter”. Jacob Zuma, the next South African President, comes from the same (Zulu) family of tribes.

And into this richly complicated picture we Westerners suppose we can charge and, by precipitating the removal of one old madman, conjure into existence a transformed national political consciousness. Do you think that when Mugabe asked last week “how can a pen fight a gun?” he was simply issuing a threat? He was not. It was a populist remark. He was making an observation about the business of politics across much of his continent: an observation that will not have outraged, but amused, his intended audience.

Plenty of people in Zimbabwe, including plenty of white business people and farmers, will have done deals with Zanu (PF). There will be an intricate network of client- relationships, of patronage and of diffused and shared power. It will probably prove possible to shift and replace one or two figures at the top. It may even be possible to seat a couple of opposition figures at the government high table. The West certainly can, and does, run puppet autocracies in Africa. But if anyone thinks this will be the beginning of genuine multiparty politics, the toleration of opposition and the rule of law, such hopes will be disappointed.

For that, an outside power or league of powers would need to occupy Zimbabwe and begin the process of re-creating government, the executive and judiciary; purging the military and police, redistributing land and resources that have been stolen, identifying and prosecuting the culprits… and paying for it. I doubt we have the stomach for this.

“Thanks for that,” you may say, “but what alternative do you propose?”

I have none. To rescue Zimbabwe is beyond not our capacity, but our will. We can only wail and wring our hands.