Zimbabwe: back to the Commonwealth?

•November 28, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Indications ahead of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Trinidad are that Zimbabwe will be offered readmission to the Commonwealth in 2011. In return for readmission Zimbabwe will be required to implement democratic and economic reforms. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002 on the grounds that Robert Mugabe had been fraudulently re-elected in the country’s presidential election. Zimbabwe quit the Commonwealth a year later, after the body refused to lift the country’s suspension. The lifting of Zimbabwe’s suspension had been supported by South Africa and some southern African countries, which favoured engagement over isolation of Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF government labelled the Commonwealth’s decision racist. It accused Britain, which under Tony Blair had led the campaign to renew Zimbabwe’s suspension, and other predominately white member countries, such as Australia, of having hijacked the body.

The prime minister of Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai, backs readmission. But it is unlikely that President Mugabe and his party will welcome the offer of readmission because they are acutely sensitive to international double standards in human rights and democracy promotion. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Uganda, among others, are no more democratic or respectful of human rights than Zimbabwe, but they are Commonwealth members. Zanu-PF will find the Commonwealth’s conditions objectionable for their hypocrisy.

Despite the Commonwealth’s high-sounding expectations on democracy and human rights, the body lacks the political will to promote and protect these ideals. The history of the Commonwealth’s relationship with Zimbabwe is unsurprisingly tainted. Certainly the 1979 Commonwealth summit in Lusaka in Zambia helped facilitate an end to white minority rule in Zimbabwe. But in the early 1980s Mugabe ordered a campaign of violence in order to destroy the Zapu party. Mugabe’s Zanu and Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu were the two main nationalist parties during Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, which culminated in the independence of 1980. The historical rivalry and distrust between the parties endured into the independence era. Zapu’s existence was a challenge to Zanu dominance.

In the early 1980s, dissident activities in the Matabeleland province by army deserters allegedly linked to Nkomo were used as a pretext to crush Zapu. The Fifth Brigade, a North Korean-trained unit, was deployed to the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, where it embarked on an operation of violence and intimidation called the Gukurahundi, which resulted in up to 20,000 deaths. The 1983 Commonwealth heads of government summit in India did not raise the matter of the Gukurahundi.

Even if Zanu-PF hails the Commonwealth readmission offer, it is improbable that the Zimbabwe power-sharing government will meet the mandatory political and economic reforms because the implementation of genuine democratic and economic reforms is political suicide for Zanu-PF. By virtue of its unpopularity, the party needs to maintain most of Zimbabwe’s undemocratic structures in order to stand a chance in the country’s next elections. Zanu-PF and its military backers are intransigent on reforms. They have obstructed and subverted reforms they agreed to as part of the power-sharing agreement. There has also been uninterrupted Zanu-PF violence against Tsvangirai’s MDC and civil society.

Although the Zimbabwe power-sharing government has managed to control what had become a record-breaking rate of inflation, the country’s economy remains in dire straits. Much-needed international economic aid has proved elusive. Zimbabwe will definitely be asking what it stands to gain economically by agreeing to rejoin the cash-strapped Commonwealth. It is a melancholy truth that the Commonwealth is an unattractive proposal economically. It is also pregnant with a lack of political will and double standards when it comes to upholding its stated norms and values. These are imperative subjects the Commonwealth must engage if it is to have a meaningful relevance.



Nick Griffin is right, Churchill would be at home in the BNP

•November 1, 2009 • Leave a Comment


At the beginning of the controversial BBC’s Question Time (22 October 2009) with the BNP’s Nick Griffin as one of the panelists, there was a question from the floor which went: “is it fair that the BNP has hijacked Winston Churchill given that he fought against oppression and repression”. Labour MP and Justice Minister Jack Straw’s response to the question was “it is certainly not fair. The fact that this party has hijacked his image when he stood against racism and Nazism in WW1 and WW2 is wrong. We only won the First and Second World Wars because we were joined by millions of blacks and Asians around the world”. Straw’s reply was greeted with rapturous applause from a multi-racial audience. The Tory Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action Sayeeda Warsi delivered the final blow when she thundered “any party which has the values of the BNP does not share the values of Churchill and of our armed forces, therefore it is disgusting that they should use those images”.

In his defense, Griffin noted that Britain fought WW2 “to preserve its freedom and sovereignty” and made reference to a comment by Churchill in the early days of mass immigration to the UK that “they are only coming here for our benefit services”. Griffin is right about Churchill and the reasons Britain fought WW2, and you do not have to be racist to agree with him. Churchill, a self proclaimed democrat, fervently opposed granting freedom to India and branded Mohandas Karamchand Gandi “a half naked fakir”. It is “disgusting” that Sayeeda Warsi, who is of Asian origin, was in Churchill’s defense. And while Asians and Africans fought alongside the British in WW2, as Straw argued, they were still denied independence by Britain in their respective colonies at the end of the war. Some of the African WW2 veterans were also not adequately compensated at the end of the war. Moreover Churchill regarded black Africans as incompetent and lazy. This is not the thinking of a man “who stood against racism”, as Straw would have us believe. Despite Churchill’s racist views on black Africans, Bonnie Greer, a black historian on the panel, made a lame comment that Churchill’s mother was “American and there are hints that his mother was Mohawk Indian, therefore he could never have been in the BNP as its is constituted”.

By 1944, Churchill and the Allies knew that the Nazis were using gas to systematically exterminate Jews in Auschwitz. International Jewish organisations and other prominent Jews made impassioned appeals to Churchill to bomb gas chambers or railways, which were the mode for transportation of Jews to their death in Nazi concentration camps. Britain had the military capability to do this but Churchill chose to ignore the pleas. Churchill was never a champion of saving Jews from the Holocaust.

It was also troubling to witness the mainstream parties compete with the BNP over immigration issues. Labour even looked “liberal” on immigration at times. This of course had to do with Griffin being on the same panel as Straw. Griffin deserves to be taken to task for his immigration policy proposals. But by making his right wing views the focus, the audience and British public generally lost sight of just how racist and restrictionist Labour is on immigration, and how the Tories promise to be even tougher on immigration should they come to power next year. Labour and Tories’ immigration policies needed to be taken to task, along with the extreme Griffin. But with Griffin there, the criticism was deflected. Labour and the Tories could claim the high moral ground. There is little to fear from the BNP. The party will never get elected. It is the mainstream parties who are frightening. They are racist and restrictionist on immigration, but just that more sophisticated and subtle than the rabble rousing and crude Griffin and BNP.


Obama mania falls flat in Africa

•October 29, 2009 • Leave a Comment


US President Barack Obama cannot solve all of Africa’s problems. Africans did not expect him to either but they certainly anticipated that he would reverse former president George Bush’s Africa policies. Almost a year into the Obama presidency, the reversal has largely not occurred. Obama has in fact continued many of Bush’s Africa policies. The Obama administration does not make use of the Bush government’s ‘war on terror’ rhetoric but its counter-terrorism strategies in Africa are not dissimilar to those employed by its predecessor. Like Bush, Obama has not been pro-active in African war and peace issues, as evidenced by how the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) conflict has continued without determined external intervention. The Africa Command (AFRICOM), which was created by Bush in 2007 to conduct “sustained security engagement through military-to-military programs, military-sponsored activities, and other military operations as directed to promote a stable and secure African environment in support of U.S. foreign policy” has not been disbanded despite its skeptical treatment in Southern Africa and the legitimate criticism leveled against it for its co-operation with some corrupt and repressive African militaries.
Many commentators have argued that Obama has the undisputed credibility to make foreign policy pronouncements and actions that all previous American presidents could not. For instance, Paul Collier argues that Obama “has the legitimacy in Africa” to use AFRICOM troops to put down coups against legitimately elected governments. Collier and others dangerously equate African goodwill towards Obama and the culture of celebrity – Obama mania – surrounding him with legitimacy in Africa. Obama is a black of Kenyan origin who won resoundingly at the polls but the election was an American one. Obama is the legitimate president of America not Africa. America has been on the wrong side of human rights and democracy in Africa historically. The negative legacies of America’s involvement in African affairs endure. Thus it will continue to be treated with resentment and suspicion in many parts of Africa regardless the fact that Obama is popular and black.
Obama and the US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice have referred to the human rights violations occurring in Sudan’s Darfur region as genocide but the US Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration has a record of contradicting their conclusion. Do the human rights problems in Darfur constitute genocide or not? The Obama team has been divided on this question. To add fuel to the fire, Gration infamously stated that “we have got to think about giving out cookies – kids, countries, they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement” when describing how to tackle Sudan’s Omar Bashir government. The disingenuous description was sanitized as “a policy of incentives and pressure” in the new Sudan policy Obama announced this month. As with Iran and North Korea, Obama’s Sudan policy seeks to engage not isolate. However, engagement has been absent with regards to Zimbabwe, which remains isolated and sanctioned despite the Southern African Development Community and African Union’s recognition of Zimbabwe’s unity government and their calls for the lifting of sanctions. The inconsistency has allowed Mugabe to argue that Obama, like Bush before him, seeks imperialist ‘regime change’ in Zimbabwe. Africa must resign itself to the naked reality that there will be no marked shift in America’s foreign policy on Africa, even under Obama.

Veneration of ‘heroes’ is incomplete

•October 29, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The Late L Jongwe

I have long been critical of the veneration of ‘heroes’ past and present because it is often misdirected. It obscures the significant contributions of other actors and whitewashes the shortcomings of ‘heroes’. Thus, we are left with an incomplete picture.
For these reasons, I found Blessing Vava’s “Obituary: In memory of Learnmore Judah Jongwe, 1974-2002” (The Zimbabwean, 20 October 2009) a troubling composition.
Without detracting from Jongwe’s noteworthy role in the resurgence of the national students mother body ZINASU and the MDC’s rise, it is imperative to bear in mind that these developments were not handed down by Jongwe or any of the other leaders involved for that matter. The leadership skills Jongwe and others exercised were buttressed by pro-democracy cadres’ activism, the material and moral support and sacrifices of various supporters and sympathisers. By focusing on Jongwe, almost to the point of martyr creation, Vava loses sight of the contribution of these actors. He also overlooks fortune, chance or luck – a factor Machiavelli was preoccupied with in The Prince. To paraphrase Machiavelli, leaders only ever control 50% of their actions. The other 50% is controlled by fortune, that restless river over which we have no command.
Zimbabwean politics and history telling is replete with the practice of exclusion. For instance, the role of spirit mediums such as Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi was played up in Zanu (PF) historical interpretations, at the expense of the sacrifices of rural peasants and traditional chiefs, in order to conscript their martyrdom and spiritual attachment to land for the legitimisation and mobilisation of support for the Third Chimurenga.
This conscription has also served to cast Robert Mugabe as the modern heir to Nehanda and Kaguvi in the struggle for land reclamation. Mugabe and Zanu (PF)’s roles in the liberation struggle loom so large in official history that the importance of Charles Mzingeli, Reuben Jamela, Ndabaningi Sithole, Guy Clutton-Brock, Wilfred Mhanda, Joshua Nkomo and others is obscured.
Vava claims that Jongwe was ‘assassinated’ while in Chikurubi Maximum Prison but has no evidence to show for this. If his ‘assassination’ charge is based on conjecture then I will venture to engage in some guesswork of my own here. Simply put, what did it profit Zanu (PF) to ‘assassinate’ Jongwe who was already in prison and guilty of homicide? Zimbabwe’s politicised judiciary could easily have seen to it that he was sentenced to prison for a long time – long enough to effectively end his political career. Why risk public suspicion and rebuke over a man who had done himself in already?
However, the most troubling aspect of Vava’s piece is the fact that he ignores the naked reality that Jongwe fatally stabbed his wife during a domestic dispute. Nowhere in his article does he make reference to this, which is the reason why Jongwe was in Chikurubi in the first place. Without taking anything away from women’s agency, the greatest form of violence in Zimbabwe today and historically is not Zanu (PF) violence against the opposition and civil society but Zimbabwean men’s daily violence against women in homes and workplaces, which cuts across party or civil society divide. Jongwe was guilty of fatal domestic violence and any obituary that does not mention this is bigoted and insensitive to the plight of all women. It is ludicrous for Vava to declare that ‘as ZINASU, we demand that an independent commission of inquiry be established to look into the death of Jongwe’, as if the circumstances of Jongwe’s death, and indeed the value of his life, matter more than that of Rutendo Muusha.
Moreover, the fact that Prime Minister of Zimbabwe Morgan Tsvangirai simply blamed the Zanu (PF) government for Jongwe’s death, without fully considering the problematic implications of that allegation reflects his and the MDC’s lack of gender sensitivity. It goes without saying that women have been marginalised in a masculine and violent Zimbabwean opposition and ruling party politics.
As ZINASU, the Friends of Learnmore Jongwe Trust and some in the MDC commemorate Jongwe’s death seven years ago this month, they must, for once, look back on his life, warts and all. It is not enough to eulogise, ‘we want to remember Jongwe for the light he shed that others might see; for the life he shared so selflessly; and for the vision, the wisdom, the dedication, and compassion he dispensed so generously’ when he was not so selfless, visionary, wise and compassionate in his dealings with women. ‘We want to remember him for the cause that he espoused, which turned into his own life’s quest for a humanity liberated from the stranglehold of tyranny, fear, hatred, prejudice, ignorance, and rapaciousness’, Vava writes. Does this remembrance also include freedom from tyranny, fear, hatred, prejudice and rapaciousness against women, who constitute the majority on this earth?

Should we believe in Barack?

•February 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment

A provocative piece by one of my favourite writers, David Rieff:

Europe’s rapturous reception, first to Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy and then to his election, created a good deal of cognitive dissonance in a United States that had become resigned to European anti-Americanism. Had those surveys showing that young Europeans thought Washington to be a greater threat to world peace than Tehran and more responsible for global warming than Beijing been fabricated? And if not, how was it that even conservatives in Britain, France and Germany made no secret of their desire for Obama to defeat John McCain, while the European left seem to segue effortlessly from insisting that the Bush administration was at the root of practically everything that was wrong with the world to the most fantastical hopes for what an America with Barack Obama as its president could accomplish?

While such incoherence brings to mind the old LP title You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, the reality is that European anti-Americanism, particularly on the left, was always a bit of a sham: for every denunciation of George Bush, or rally for Mumia Abu Jamal, or excoriation of the US for issuing Israel a blank cheque, there was an equal measure of admiration for “good America” — “the America we love”, as a French news weekly once put it. To be sure, there was the “wicked America” of God, guns and fat people. But there was also the good America of Charles Bukowski, Noam Chomsky and Sean Penn (and, though mercifully only for the French, Jerry Lewis).

Why Europeans were so ready to assume that Obama was the paragon of that good America is probably more a psychological than a political question. Presumably, the fact that he is black (well, actually biracial) played a role, though it did nothing for Condoleezza Rice or, before her, Colin Powell. And in fairness, many Europeans, above all in immigrant communities, compared America’s willingness to elect a non-white president with their own lack of representation in the corridors of power in Westminster, Strasbourg and Berlin. The fact that mass non-white immigration to Europe is less than 75 years old, while blacks are an essential part of American history from its beginning, somehow got lost in the euphoria.

But it could not have done so had Europeans not been ready — even eager, perhaps, to the point of approaching Stockholm syndrome — to love America again. To be sure, Obama’s decision to in effect form a coalition government with the most hawkish elements of the Democratic establishment of the Clinton years as well as retain George Bush’s secretary of defence has provided something of a wake-up call — a piercing of the sentimental haze. But the question remains: how could Obamamania have taken such a deep hold in the first place? The US is not terra incognita to Europeans. So how could they imagine that a senator from Illinois, a place where you don’t get elected unless the business establishment supports you, was somehow a radical, redemptive figure?

The answer, or at least a very large part of the answer, is depressingly simple: because they needed to, and because, when all is said and done, European anti-Americanism is not only superficial in the extreme but just too much of an effort. What makes it so is not just that such sentimental hopes are the ultimate in vicarious cheap thrills, but that Obamamania allows Europeans to once again cede political responsibility to the United States. Yes, Europe needed to assert itself when George Bush the Bad was in the White House. But now that Barack Obama the Good is its tenant, Europeans can safely go back to sleep, geopolitically speaking.

From his Keynesian plinth, Gordon Brown can once more emphasise the special relationship between Britain and the US, while across the Channel, President Sarkozy is busy driving the last nails into the coffin of Gaullist exceptionalism and following Washington to Afghanistan and — who knows? — maybe to the skies over Tehran as well.

So much for the European project! And yet European Obamamania is not just idiocy, it is a political blunder. Not for the first time Europeans radically misread the United States. For, in fact, Obama’s real job is to restore the economic wellbeing of the United States. Of course he will make all the right multilateral noises. But there is little he has said, and even less in his background, let alone in that of the central players in his government, to offer the slightest basis for believing he will challenge the bedrock faith of all of official Washington, which is that the continuation of American hegemony (just please don’t call it an empire) is what is best for the world.

If that is the global order Europeans want, then Obama will indeed make a fine king. But if it is not, the focus should be directed less west across the Atlantic and more to matters closer to home. At the very least, as the old cliché has it, buyer beware. – By David Rieff, “The Times”, 15 February 2009.

Running late

•January 31, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I did the strangest thing this morning. The moment my ears became aware of the sound of morning I bolted out of bed and straight for the shower. I brushed my teeth violently, got dressed and left hurriedly, like I was late for something. Joshua and Katy, who I live with, were still in bed. They get up before me normally. It was only when I stopped to buy some food that I began to wonder what time it was and where exactly I was headed. I asked the shop manager for the time (I have no watch or mobile phone), paid for my food and proceeded to Queen Elizabeth House (QEH), where I spend my days applying for jobs. I do not know what to make of this experience. There was a strong sense of urgency to get ready, to go, when I awoke.  QEH has given some meaning to my days. Maybe that is what I was rushing for this morning: meaning. Yesterday a confidante was alarmed to learn that I was spending the day in QEH, 24 hours after a medical operation. I yearn for meaning.

It sticks in the craw

•January 31, 2009 • Leave a Comment

– Sharing power with Robert Mugabe may be the only way to save Zimbabwe from the worst effects of his regime –

Deal or no deal? Southern African leaders proclaimed earlier this week that agreement had been reached to work towards a unity government in Zimbabwe. But Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) quickly contradicted the announcement, saying the meeting’s conclusions did not meet the party’s expectations and that its national council will meet later in the week to decide whether to join the unity government or not.

Under the terms of Monday’s “agreement”, the home affairs ministry – which is coveted by the parties because it entails control of the police – will be shared. The MDC-T’s demand for sole control is fair, because Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF already controls the military. All the same, the MDC-T’s post-talks statement signals the prospect of even more negotiations about power sharing in the midst of a worsening humanitarian crisis. The cholera epidemic has spread from urban to rural areas. The state has abdicated most of its responsibilities. Life is now unbearable under the prevailing economic conditions. Renewed talks will serve to compound Zimbabweans’ doom and gloom. Zimbabwe continues to attract much international attention, but many have tired or are growing tired of the intransigent nature of the country’s problems – particularly Zanu-PF’s unwillingness to accommodate the MDC. Zanu-PF has done all it can to depict the MDC-T as the obdurate party in the talks. “If they (the MDC-T) think they can hold Zimbabwe to ransom it will be very unfortunate. I do not think the people of Zimbabwe will allow that to happen. They (the MDC-T) are pushing their luck,” says Zimbabwe’s deputy information minister Bright Matonga.

It is two months shy of a year since Mugabe and his party looked down and out after last year’s disputed national elections. The sight of Mugabe as president – and holding the balance of power in the unity government – is certainly a marvel. It is emblematic of his party’s ruthless instinct for survival. But it also shows how incapable the African Union (AU) and the Southern Africa Development Community are when it comes to dealing with incumbents who lose elections, only to deploy violence and fraud to remain in power. This is at the heart of the problem.

MDC-T finds itself bereft of viable options beyond the hostage politics that has ensued since the deal was first signed. The difficult question the party’s national council faces in the coming days is whether to enter into an unequal and flawed agreement in order to work for incremental change within the state, or to stay outside it. Staying outside invites more Zanu-PF violence, and increased human suffering and misery for Zimbabweans under a Zanu-PF government isolated by western sanctions.

Joining the unity government as a junior partner would be a climbdown and an anti-climax for a party that seemed – at one point – to have relieved Zimbabwe from Zanu-PF’s authoritarian grip. Many of the MDC-T’s cadre and supporters will feel betrayed at the lack of justice after the violence meted out to them by Zanu-PF in the last election. Elections and democracy will seem more meaningless than ever. Nonetheless, the stark reality is that the key organs of state security remain aligned to Zanu-PF and Africans will not make Mugabe compromise further, even as Zimbabweans’ suffering escalates. MDC-T will never enter the unity government on an equal or senior footing to Zanu-PF. Realism says the MDC-T is better off strategically working from within the government to bring about incremental change through constitutional reform, and by scrutinising and attempting to thwart ZANU PF’s undemocratic machinations. Come the next election, the party will also find there are palpable advantages in having a foothold in the state.