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Robert Mugabe: a complex legacy

Robert Mugabe died on September 6th in Singapore after a long illness, and the press has been full of commentary about his legacy. There is a deep fascination with him in the UK. Despite the drama of Brexit, his death was top news across the papers and TV channels. I was taken aback  when I saw his image on a massive news screen at King’s Cross station in London announcing his death. Once feted by the Queen, now almost universally reviled, what is it about the dramatic tragedy in the narrative of a transition from ‘hero’ to ‘villain’ that so captivates people, but also blinds us to the complexities of history?

This complexity, and the importance of a deeper history, comes across in some of the better reflections on his death. There is much that’s already been written, but there are a few articles that have stood out for me. The piece ‘Mugabe: a man of more than one story’, for example, highlights the multiple threads of a complex narrative, as does Alex Magaisa’s BSR piece, which urges us not to forget the victims of Mugabe’s regime. Perhaps surprisingly, but like many Zimbabweans of his age, Tendai Biti, once tortured by the regime, says ‘I don’t feel bitterness. I feel indebtedness’. The missed opportunities of the liberation are reflected on in many pieces, including by Fadzayi Mahere, who argues that he ‘killed the freedoms he had worked so hard for’. Roger Southall, meanwhile, reflects on his legacy alongside other liberation party leaders in the region, pointing out that he is ‘as divisive in death as he was in life’. A typically quirky take comes from Percy Zvomuya focusing on deeper family backgrounds and historical contingencies in the piece, Robert Mugabe: the leader who shouldn’t have been. And my favourite of all is the 2017 article by Everjoice Win, widely recirculated in the past days, which captured the moment around the ‘coup’, but seems even more apposite today, and reflects the feelings of many.

Why has Mugabe’s passing attracted so much attention, particularly internationally? Some while ago, Miles Tendi, a Zimbabwean scholar and professor at Oxford University, pointed to the roots of the media fascination with Mugabe in the UK:

“Mugabe is the British media’s bogeyman for everything that is wrong with Africa and one can never escape the naked reality that the fallout from ZANU-PF’s violent eviction of white farmers in Zimbabwe from 2000 onwards, many of whom were British descendants, continues to attract a disproportionate amount of international focus compared to other more severe crises…”

In a similar vein, back in 2008, the renowned Ugandan scholar, Mahmood Mamdani pointed out in his controversial essay for the London Review of Books:

“It is hard to think of a figure more reviled in the West than Robert Mugabe. Liberal and conservative commentators alike portray him as a brutal dictator…. There is no denying Mugabe’s authoritarianism, or his willingness to tolerate and even encourage the violent behaviour of his supporters…. [but this] gives us little sense of how Mugabe has managed to survive. For he has ruled not only by coercion but by consent, and his land reform measures, however harsh, have won him considerable popularity, not just in Zimbabwe but throughout southern Africa. In any case, the preoccupation with his character does little to illuminate the socio-historical issues involved”.

Mugabe’s death reminded me of the screening of Simon Bright’s film, Robert Mugabe… What Happened? at Sussex some years ago. An earlier blog observed that it is a powerful documentary, using fascinating archival footage, together with interviews with key figures in the opposition movement in Zimbabwe. It tells a sympathetic, historically-informed, but still highly critical, story about the man. With Mugabe gone, it is well worth watching again.

It is considerably more nuanced than much of the mainstream commentary that has emerged following his death. This typically follows the hero-to-villain storyline, often attached to the positive then evil influence of his two wives, Sally and Grace. Land reform in 2000 is often marked as the turning point, with the story of land reform being given the usual, misinformed gloss of disaster, turning Zimbabwe from ‘breadbasket to basket case’, the result of party cronies being given the land, and poorly qualified poor farmers making matters worse. I have largely ceased to engage with these narratives, coming from many who really should know much better by now, and I am not going to rehearse the argument again that these views are grossly misinformed here. There are now 360 blogs on Zimbabweland, and many more research articles besides, which together give a more nuanced story.

Too often in mainstream accounts, the role of the British in the Mugabe story is glossed over. Yet the British government’s complicity – for example in the silence about the massacres by the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland in the 1980s – was significant. The failure of the British to push a more complete settlement at Lancaster House in 1979, and of course the diplomatic gaffe of the infamous ‘Clare Short letter’ in 1997, are all part of the picture. The resentments and hostility rose to a head in the late 1990s, as Mugabe and Blair locked horns. And, while commentaries are critical of white Rhodesia and Ian Smith’s UDI rule, they often do not explore the failure of a more complete reconciliation and integration of whites in the new Zimbabwe following Independence.

At our film screening panel discussion back in 2012, this was an issue tackled by Denis Norman, who served in Mugabe’s cabinet after Independence, and came from being the head of the white Commercial Farmers’ Union. He conceded that more could have been done back then, especially on land reform. There was an unwritten political contract between white farmers and the new state that whites could farm and make money, but not be involved in opposition politics, and land reform, despite the liberation war rhetoric, was parked. This fell apart with the launch of the MDC, and the support of white farmers of an opposition movement. The failure of the donor-brokered land conference in 1998 was a key moment, as no side was willing to compromise. The land invasions that followed were then perhaps inevitable.

As a number of the more sophisticated commentaries highlight, countering the hero-to-villain narrative means emphasising the continuities in the way politics have been played out in Zimbabwe since Independence, with Mugabe at the centre. A lack of tolerance of alternative views, violence and oppression have all been a consistent pattern, and stretch into the the pre-Independence period and the nationalist struggle (and indeed in particular the ‘struggles within the struggle’). A transition from militarised, violent liberation war struggle to peaceful, democratic governance did not happen.

It is not a question of seeing a golden age of the 1980s to contrast with the period since 2000. While there have been important changes, there are also repeated patterns. This is why the much-hailed 2017 ‘coup’ was doomed to failure, and perhaps no surprise that the Mnangagwa regime has seen much continuity, notably in violent repression of opposition forces. This is of course why a democratic transition, with a strong constitutional base, remains so critical; to shed once and for all this violent history.

In assessing Mugabe’s complex legacy, the positive legacies of massively improved education and health services for all in the 1980s and land redistribution to smallholders, especially post-2000, have to balanced against the persistent use of violence, gross economic mismanagement and the failure to develop a democratic state. As opposition politician, Tendai Biti, noted on his death, Mugabe was a ‘coalition of controversies’.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

Photo credit: President of Zimbabwe Addresses UN General Assembly, 25 Sep 2009. UN Photo/Marco Castro. www.unmultimedia.org/photo/ via flickr)

 

 

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The UK election, Africa and Zimbabwe

On Thursday it’s the UK election. The most open for ages, and no-one knows who will come out on top – and more importantly what configuration any post-election coalition will look like. As a small set of islands and a dwindling economic and political power, elections in the UK should not really matter for the rest of the world. But bizarrely they do; and perhaps especially this one. The tectonic shifts occurring in British politics may have long-run consequences. Depending on the outcome and the political battles that follow, the UK could either split up – with the Scottish Nationalists demanding an early re-run of the referendum – or leave the European Union – with the Tory right and UKIP urging an exit. Any of these scenarios will mean major changes in how Britain (or perhaps a new union of England, Wales and Northern Ireland) interacts with the world.

How then are the various parties addressing ‘international issues’, and African and development issues in particular? On African Arguments, Magnus Taylor and Hetty Bailey have offered a very useful summary of the different manifesto pledges. With the inevitable exception of UKIP, all the parties have committed to maintaining the 0.7 per cent of GDP commitment to international development. The Greens even urge that it be increased to 1 per cent. In the age of austerity this cross-party consensus to ring-fence aid money seems extraordinary. It is however a fragile consensus, continuously attacked by the right-wing press and others. Any post-election wrangling, particularly if UKIP are involved in some type of deal in alliance with the right-wing of the Tory party, will challenge it. But for the time being the view, forged by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown before 2010, that the UK should commit to an internationalist agenda, involving humanitarian and development aid is, amazingly, sticking.

However, as the African Arguments piece shows, the way ‘international development’ is framed in the manifestos is – with some exceptions – very different to the hey-day of the late 1990s, when the Department for International Development was formed. Today, because of the political threat, aid is very much constructed as expenditure in Britain’s often quite short term interests. Aid is for building platforms for British business abroad (a return to a ‘mercantilist power’ – and of course competing with China who has no qualms about link aid and commerce); for quelling conflict and reducing immigration to Europe (and with the horrific scenes of boats arriving to Lampedusa, this is high on the news agenda); and for preventing Islamic extremism that may have an impact at home. Humanitarianism has not gone though, and the massive public response to the Nepal earthquake has demonstrated again, that small-island selfishness is not universal. However, the aid for trade agenda in particular has become very prominent under the current government, and DFID’s work is often indistinguishable from the export promotion wings of the Foreign Office and BIS, the Department for Business, Industry and Skills. The focus on ‘fragile states’ means the Ministry of Defence is also heavily embroiled in the ‘development’ agenda too. It remains to be seen if DFID survives this election along with its budget. Certainly in the last decade DFID has become a shadow of its former self, and very much lost its way (see this brilliant blog by my colleague, Robert Chambers on the extreme pathologies hampering DFID’s work).

What does this all mean for Africa – and Zimbabwe in particular? Zimbabwe retains a peculiar fascination in British politics. There is an All-Party Group on Zimbabwe for example that provides an essentially anti-ZANU-PF/anti-Mugabe lobby group within parliament, with regular meetings, reports and parliamentary questions. It has been chaired for by the Labour MP for Vauxhall, Kate Hoey. Her website documents her ‘undercover’ visits to Zimbabwe in the 2000s and support for human rights and the opposition MDC. Her other passion for country sports and fox hunting probably makes for common ground with other members of the committee, who include a number of Tory Lords and establishment figures. The group reflects the very British complexion of political links with Zimbabwe. It includes Labour party human rights campaigners – with their backgrounds often in the struggle against apartheid (most notably Peter Hain, but also Baroness Kinnock – a leading member of the group, and someone who regularly asks questions on Zimbabwe in parliament), the Tory grandees with post-colonial connections to ‘kith and kin’ in Zimbabwe, and those more squarely interested in trade and business in southern Africa. This unlikely coalition have been brought together in the past 15 years with their support for the opposition in Zimbabwe and their detestation of President Mugabe. Lobbied by former white farmer activists from Zimbabwe, business associations, and diaspora networks, mostly notably the die-hards of the Zimbabwe Vigil, the Foreign Office and DFID are under continuous pressure on Zimbabwe. And too often, as I have found on too many occasions, subject to extreme forms of misinformation and bias.

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Nothing perhaps illustrates this better than the most bizarre of outbursts from the Mayor of London, prospective MP, and potential future Conservative Party leader, Boris Johnson. On the occasion of President Mugabe’s birthday bash in February, Johnson used a column in the Tory flagship, the Daily Telegraph, to let rip. Too often dismissed as a posh buffoon, Johnson is a smart and dangerous political operator. And if Cameron and co stumble on Thursday, he could find himself in the top position in the Conservative Party, maybe in time even Prime Minister. So read his diatribe in this light – and be scared, very scared. While pitched as a pre-election jibe at Tony Blair (blaming Blair for appeasing Mugabe), it demonstrated in full flow the narrow-minded, colonial, almost racist, attitude of too many (highly intelligent – and Boris is no fool) commentators on Zimbabwe. As noted by Wilbert Mukori in his column the Telegraph piece was full of an “obnoxious and overbearing British imperialist mentality” that simply acted to boost Mugabe’s position. Of course the ZANU-PF spin-master, Jonathan Moyo lapped it up, and the clumsy intervention was used (as ever) rather effectively as a propaganda weapon in ZANU-PF’s on-going tussle with the British establishment.

British politicians repeatedly fail to understand Africa, and perhaps especially Zimbabwe. From Clare Short’s disastrous letter on the land issue to this most recent outburst from Boris, the lack of appreciation of history, the gross insensitivity to global relations, and the absence of reflexivity of position and power, is flabbergasting. The 2013 elections in Zimbabwe were badly called by British diplomats, characterised by Richard Dowden as “the biggest defeat for the United Kingdom’s policy in Africa in 60 years”. I have no idea who advises the UK Foreign Office or DFID at the highest levels on Zimbabwe (it’s not me – they’ve never asked!), but the lack of understanding is frequently quite shocking. It comes from their own isolation (they don’t get out enough), the extraordinarily poor reporting of Zimbabwe in the British media, and the briefings influenced by the London and parliamentary lobby groups of course. And their hands are tied by the strictures imposed by the UK and the European Union following 2000 – the ‘sanctions’ and ‘restrictive measures’ that have caused so much confusion and damage.

With a European lead, the UK is beginning – sensibly, but all too slowly – to re-engage with Zimbabwe ‘on an incremental basis’. The overall UK aid budget has remained high but it has to be allocated very selectively – with new resettlement areas and support to post-land reform still out of bounds. This means that aid efforts get distorted, and the conversations that are needed to allow a greater ‘normalisation’ do not happen. And so with this misunderstandings and misperceptions continue. Applying diplomatic pressure and focusing aid is of course perfectly appropriate, and I subscribe to nearly all the broad objectives of the UK aid programme, as outlined on the website. But much of this gradual, painfully slow, movement in the right direction may be undermined by the outcomes (immediate, and longer-term) of this election. What if the UK leaves Europe? This will leave UK diplomacy very exposed in Zimbabwe, as elsewhere. What if, in time, Scotland leaves the UK? Will there be a radical, progressive Scottish aid programme in Zimbabwe, alongside DFID’s? Maybe. And what if the likes of Boris Johnson, with a bunch of UKIP allies, take over? Heaven help us. Despite Britain’s dwindling power and economic influence, elections in the former colonial power do still, strangely, matter, so look out for the news on May 8, and the days and weeks that follow.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland

 

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A prescient perspective on land from 1968

In 1968, Malcom Rifkind, then a 22 year old postgraduate student at the University of Southern Rhodesia wrote the following in his University of Edinburgh thesis, “The Politics of Land in Rhodesia”:

“Today, (October 1968), land is a burning issue in Rhodesia, but only for the Africans. As far as the Europeans are concerned, the problem has been resolved – in their favour. … However, a settlement which is opposed to the wishes of 95% of the population cannot be declared to be final and land will remain a vital problem, at least until the whole political system has changed”.

Well, 22 years later, in 1980 when Malcom Rifkind was a member of Mrs Thatcher’s government, the political system did change with Independence. But the land issue remained a ‘vital problem’. It was not until 2000 that land reform for the majority occurred. And whether the political system has changed in the right direction remains a subject of hot debate. Malcom Rifkind of course later went on to become Britain’s Foreign Secretary, and served in both Mrs Thatcher’s and John Major’s governments. A conservative politician, he is not usually associated with progressive views about land. But as a young student in Southern Rhodesia durng the UDI period, his analysis of land issues showed deep insight and prescience. I read this thesis years ago when doing my own PhD. The author was a minister of state in the Foreign Office at time (responsible for the Falklands!). To read the thesis, you had to go to the University of London Senate House library and sign a form that you had consulted it. Not many had. But now, thanks to Joe Hanlon at the Open University who rediscovered it in preparing his remarkable forthcoming book ‘Zimbabwe Takes Back the Land’ (more on this when it’s released), and with Sir Malcom’s permission, you can now read it yourself (Sorry it’s really large (15MB), so you may have to wait a bit… or go to Senate House if it’s close by). We have posted it on the Zimbabweland.net website so others can pick up its insights. Perhaps his successors at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should have read it. Britain’s appalling record of diplomacy with Zimbabwe has been repeatedly ill-informed. Of course the ‘Clare Short letter’ was the pinnacle, but there have been so many other moments when inappropriate signals have been given and gaffes made. There is a new UK Ambassador in Harare, Deborah Bronnert. I will send her the link to Sir Malcom’s thesis. Informed British foreign policy on Zimbabwe in the coming years will be critical.

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