It must be up to Africa

By Peter Preston (THE GUARDIAN, 14/07/08):

It is a matter of principle, surely. Here’s an ageing dictator using every means to hang on in power. His people are starving. Hundreds of thousands flee to a safe haven in the democratic country to the south. Elections are a malign joke. And what does the west do about it? Why, pile in with food aid, trade deals and sweet promises. Prop up the dictatorship for all its worth. Because for the moment we’re talking North Korea, not Zimbabwe: and Pyongyang has (or perhaps had) a little bomb that turned idealism on its head.

Of course it was galling to see Robert Mugabe’s spokesmen hailing a “great victory” this weekend. Of course there’s reason for Gordon Brown to grind his teeth as his Anglo-American package of mini-sanctions comes unstuck at the security council, blocked by China and Russia (among others), and to talk of unleashing “Plan B”. Of course it would be deeply cheery to see Mugabe dumped. But let’s not get carried away by too much froth about “impotence against tyranny”. Diplomatic life, alas, includes more than a Sunday Telegraph leader column.

The sanctions themselves, mild pursuit and hindrance of Zimbabwe’s president and immediate chums, were never likely to achieve very much – except, perhaps, to make those chums feel more beleaguered. An arms embargo makes no effective difference: Mugabe’s army has quite enough guns for oppressive purposes. And as for shoving Thabo Mbeki from the mediation stage and putting in some UN representative, how brilliant was that? South Africa’s president hasn’t had much success at the conciliation business, to be sure: but the (lost) UN resolution specifically sidelined him, and thus automatically the most influential player in the region. No wonder South Africa itself took the Chinese and Russian side.

We may scoff and rail as much as we like over Beijing’s cynicism or Moscow’s duplicity, yet their arguments are more than mere self-interested manoeuvring. Is Zimbabwe a “threat to international peace and security”? It has produced a refugee crisis causing grave internal strains in South Africa. But such strains, again, didn’t influence Mbeki’s vote, or change his mind on what can be done. And nor, significantly, did it change other African minds, either.

Take Jakaya Kikwete, president of Tanzania and the African Union, laying out the regional line. “No party can govern alone in Zimbabwe … therefore the parties have to work together.” Therefore there has to be a negotiated settlement. Is that just one more excuse for more inaction? Not in an Africa where the fault lines of tribalism still run deep. Remember how, and why, Kenya fell to its knees a few months ago. Look carefully as Mbeki strives to keep the Zulus sweet. Never forget that Zimbabwe has tribes as well as parties.

It suits us, in full preaching mode, to believe that democracy comes easy. It doesn’t in many parts of the globe where tribal and religious loyalties tear up the textbooks. Yet our own grim lesson in Afghanistan and Iraq never seems to stretch our thinking. We learn painfully that freedom can’t arrive with a visiting army, yet we don’t transfer that wisdom to others (partly because, as pat assumption, Africa should just do what we say).

Mugabe is a wrecker and an affront. But meaningless gestures won’t bring him down. There will be an African solution here, or there will be no solution at all. London and Washington aren’t central to the outcome.

Rather than get cast as a kind of transition figure between Bush and John McCain’s touted alliance of democracies, Brown would be far better sticking closer to the reality of UN charter (and practical) life. Pyongyang has its own lectures to deliver on principle. Needs must when the nuclear devil drives. The sad truth of the matter, in Harare and beyond, is that often there is no Plan B.