Few Robert Mugabe speeches over the past 10 years have failed to include some blazing rhetorical flourish against the West. “Shame, shame, shame to the United States of America. Shame, shame, shame to Britain and its allies,” he declared at the United Nations General Assembly in September. “Zimbabwe is for Zimbabweans, so are its resources. Please remove your illegal and filthy sanctions from my peaceful country.”
It was hardly surprising that American diplomats walked out. What’s perhaps more striking, however, is that some of Africa’s more moderate voices have lately joined the Zimbabwean leader in denouncing the policies of the European Union and the United States toward his country.
Neither Thabo Mbeki nor Kenneth Kaunda fit the mold of the anti-Western polemicist. Mr. Mbeki, South Africa’s president from 1999 to 2008, provided a steady hand after Nelson Mandela retired. He is, if anything, a favorite target of leftist critics who say he hewed too closely to the neoliberal economic policies favored by the West.
Yet here is Mr. Mbeki railing in a speech in August against Western assertions that Mr. Mugabe’s overwhelming re-election in July was illegitimate: “We have a common responsibility as Africans to determine our destiny and are quite ready to stand up against anybody else who thinks that, ‘never mind what the thousand African observers say about elections in Zimbabwe, we sitting in Washington and London are wiser than they are.”’
Likewise, Mr. Kaunda, president of Zambia from 1964 until 1991, when he stepped aside after defeat in his country’s first multiparty elections in nearly three decades, also had harsh words. “The exploiters are now very hard on Zimbabwe because of the immense resources your country has,” he declared recently. “Let’s continue fighting for our interests in Africa.”
Still, it’s easy to see why both men have been harshly critical of the economic restrictions imposed by the European Union in 2002 and the United States the following year: The measures have neither brought down the Mugabe government nor influenced its behavior.
Far from weakening the ruling ZANU-PF party, they have only highlighted what a blunt foreign policy tool sanctions can be. From North Korea to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, sanctions have hit repressive regimes where it hurts least. In Zimbabwe, as elsewhere, ordinary citizens — not the cosseted elite — have suffered much from the collapse of government revenue over the last decade and the drying up of foreign investment. Nothing better illustrates this utter failure then the staggering mass exodus of skilled and unskilled labor — at least 3 million Zimbabweans in a country of only 13 million have fled.
Mr. Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980, has certainly kept a ruthless hold on Zimbabwe. The implementation of his land reform program, which sought to redress an odious system imposed under white minority rule, was marked by appalling human rights abuses and precipitous economic decline. So too was the presidential election campaign of 2008, when violence and intimidation culminated in the forced withdrawal of the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who pulled out of the runoff even though he had won the first round of elections that year.
What angers many Africans, however, is that Mr. Mugabe’s overwhelming re-election this past July has done so little to change attitudes in the West. Britain and the United States insist the election was rigged but offer no convincing evidence to show that flaws on voting day amounted to systematic tampering that would have changed the outcome. African Union and Southern African Development Community observers declared the election valid.
Nor would Mr. Mugabe’s victory have surprised anyone who saw the findings of a Freedom House survey last year that found that support for Mr. Tsvangirai had fallen steeply among those Zimbabweans polled, to 20 percent from 38 percent, following his lackluster stint as prime minister in a unity government formed after the disputed 2008 election.
In fact, some analysts say the identification of the opposition with Western nations imposing harsh restrictions on Zimbabwe hurt Mr. Tsvangirai’s chances and did no harm to the ruling party’s electoral prospects.
Belgium, which has been a lone voice in calling for the lifting of sanctions and recently persuaded the European Union to allow trading with the main Zimbabwean diamond mining company, estimates that they cost Zimbabwe $400 million a year in lost revenue.
China, an increasingly assertive presence in Africa, has been quick to step into the breach left by banned Western businesses. Chinese firms are taking an ever bigger role in the gold, coal and diamond-mining sector.
The broader message this sends to many Africans is that the European Union and the United States, in pursuing a rigid policy that carries a high cost to ordinary Zimbabweans, is not ready to engage the continent on equal terms. Nor do they forget that the same Western powers once favored a policy of “constructive engagement” with Apartheid South Africa and imposed only limited sanctions on its racist government.
“The Zimbabweans have been in the frontline in terms of defending our right as Africans to determine our future,” Mr. Mbeki said in the same speech, “and they are paying a price for that. I think it is our responsibility as African intellectuals to join them, the Zimbabweans, to say, No!”
Mr. Mugabe, who will turn 90 in February, will not be in power forever. With its current policies, the West is effectively surrendering a chance to influence Zimbabwe’s future, and ensuring that he is not succeeded by an even more radical authoritarian ruler.
Murithi Mutiga is an editor at the Nation Media Group in Kenya.