Mugabe’s Shameful Protector

Praising Zimbabwe's slightly-less-fraudulent election is like congratulating Anthony Weiner for sending photographs of his genitals to fewer women this year.


CAPE TOWN, South Africa — After 33 years, Robert Mugabe simply can’t help himself. The Zimbabwean president who "won" yet another election, on July 31, is the scorpion in the parable of the scorpion and the frog — being ruthless, relentless, autocratic, and corrupt is in his nature. After gaining independence from the British colony formerly known as Rhodesia, in 1980, Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s first and only president, has ruled through increasingly autocratic means: invading white-owned farms in the guise of redistribution; jailing, killing and oppressing the opposition; destroying a once-strong economy; and stealing at least three elections. Think of him as a somewhat tragic (or just innately flawed) figure and one could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Zimbabwe’s slow, sad and seemingly endless decline is not Mugabe’s fault. It’s the fault of organizations like the African Union, and governments like South Africa, upon which Africa hangs its dreams of democracy, equality, and peace.

Are South Africa and the AU unable to reign in Mugabe, or merely unwilling? Mugabe, who broke the back of Zimbabwe over a decade ago, bullied and bribed his way to victory in the bloody elections of 2008; there is credible evidence that it wasn’t much different this time around. Independent election monitors talk of registration problems that disqualified up to a million of the country’s six and a half million registered voters (Zimbabwe has a population of around 12 million). According to the Zimbabwe Research and Advocacy Unit, over a million people on the voters’ role were either dead or no longer residing in the country. In one area, registered voters outnumbered actual inhabitants two-to-one. The Zimbabwean Electoral Commission reports that at least 305,000 registered voters were turned away at polling stations, many in the country’s capital, Harare.

The United States, Britain, Australia, the European Union, and other Western nations all suspect that the election was unfair. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that this year’s vote does "not represent a credible expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people," and described the election as "deeply flawed." And British Foreign Secretary William Hague voiced his "grave concerns" over the election results.

The regional response has been somewhat different. Admirably, the government of the small Southern African nation of Botswana has refused to call the election "free and fair." But South African president Jacob Zuma expressed his "profound congratulations" to Mugabe, described the election as "successful," and, in a perhaps intentional inversion of Kerry’s statement, an "expression of the will of the people."

Zuma also described the election as "harmonized," which was either an acknowledgement of Mugabe’s canny engineering, or an admission that, at the very least, no one was hurt. But Zuma is wrong — democracy in Zimbabwe has been harmed, once again.

An editorial in the influential South African newspaper Business Day noted that "Polite but chilly acceptance of a crooked election result is one thing; gushing praise is quite another…. Our president doesn’t seem to see the problem. That he doesn’t is just plain embarrassing."

But Zuma’s endorsement was all too typical. South Africa, which supplies its landlocked neighbor with oil, electricity, rail lines and other resources, is the one country that could have rescued Zimbabwe from Mugabe’s rule. South Africa has failed Zimbabwe before. The problem began with Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, whose policy of "quiet diplomacy" (a phrase as inane as "constructive engagement," President Ronald Reagan’s stated method of negotiating with apartheid South Africa) only encouraged Mugabe.

Both former British colonies, South Africa and Zimbabwe have historically had a close relationship. Even after Zimbabwe gained independence, in the 13 years that South Africa remained an apartheid state, the two nations retained a mostly peaceful co-existence. For its part, South Africa has mining and mineral assets in Zimbabwe, from which it also imports sugar. Through the struggle years, Mugabe remained a steadfast ally of the then-exiled African National Congress (ANC), which explains democratic, ANC-governed South Africa’s fraternal relationship with the aging dictator, if not its tendency to excuse his every infraction.

For over a decade, quiet diplomacy has echoed noisily and in unpleasant ways. Mbeki’s peculiar passivity and Mugabe’s aggressive indifference were immortalized shortly after the 2008 election, when the two leaders held hands in public and Mbeki stressed that the Zimbabwean situation was not a "crisis." Then, violent protests and concomitant crackdowns claimed the lives of up to 200 Zimbabweans, and resulted in the torture and displacement of over 40,000 others. The country was in crisis, and there was no clearer example of the failure of quiet diplomacy.

Despite some bold early noises, Zuma has not fared any better with Mugabe, which is to the detriment of both nations. South Africa has over a million Zimbabwean immigrants, which it struggles to absorb and frequently deports, at great expense. These immigrants frequently face xenophobic attacks and struggle to find work in a South African economy that is suffering from historic unemployment highs. South Africa and Botswana deported 25,300 Zimbabweans in the first four months of this year alone.

But if Zuma knows all this, he doesn’t seem to care. Like Zuma, the AU has endorsed the Zimbabwean election. Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s former president and the head of the AU’s election-monitoring mission, called the results "free, fair and credible." By way of a backhanded qualification, at a press conference on August 2, Obasanjo added, "I have never seen an election that is perfect."

Artificially enhancing last month’s vote by comparing it to the national trauma of the 2008 election was another tortured AU line of reasoning. In a statement, the organization noted that "from a historical perspective and in comparison to the 2008 elections, Zimbabwe has made an important transition in the conduct of its election." (This argument is akin to congratulating Anthony Weiner for sending photographs of his genitals to fewer women this year than in 2011.)

When it comes to Zimbabwe, the AU is pragmatic to the point of paralysis. With its stated commitment to democracy, diversity, and tolerance, the organization is supposed to stop travesties like Zimbabwe’s election from occurring, but instead it has endorsed it. Why? To understand the answer, it helps to understand the motivations of the organization itself.

The AU was established in July 2002, and its primary architect was Thabo Mbeki. The organization’s forebear was the Organization of African Unity (OAU), pioneered by then-Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, and founded in 1963. But by the turn of the century, the OAU was bankrupt, and badly lacking in credibility, transparency, and prestige. As the South African journalist and political analyst R.W. Johnson notes in his book, South Africa’s Brave New World, "The only principles the OAU stuck by were respect for colonial boundaries and non-interference with whatever the despot next door has got up to."

Realizing that the OAU needed to be resuscitated and revitalized, Mbeki oversaw the transition to the AU. He was the AU’s inaugural chairperson, from 2002 to 2003, and remained a powerful player in the organization afterward, most notably mediating the ongoing strife in Sudan. Mbeki seized on the idea of the AU to push forward both Africa — he has always been steeped in pan-African ideals and dreams of an "African Renaissance" — and himself. In South Africa a decade ago, it was often remarked that Mbeki was angling for another job — that of secretary general of the United Nations. As the Economist observed in an unflattering 2005 profile, "Mbeki is increasingly able to present himself as Africa’s ambassador to the world." His AU perch made such a presentation even easier.

Although the AU has been significantly better than the OAU at realizing its idealistic aims in terms of peacekeeping and attempted intervention in war-torn countries, it retains the older organization’s preference for authoritarian and incumbent leaders over fresher and more democratic alternatives. The AU is what journalist Brian Pottinger, in his book The Mbeki Legacy, calls a "classic Mbeki paradox." At the start, the organization was enormously — perhaps impossibly — ambitious and driven by high-minded ideals. There was talk of a single currency (the African equivalent of then-flourishing euro), a pan-African Parliament, an African Court of Justice, and other grandiloquent institutions. But, ideals aside, the organization was inefficient and dysfunctional, crippled by cronyism and infighting. The AU was largely funded by the European Union, which was ironic as Mbeki loathed the EU, which he viewed as both a rival and a scourge — an interfering, oppressive, neo-imperialist force.

Mbeki has the habit of destroying the things he loves — South Africa was one of those things; the AU, another. In 2012, shortly after the organization’s 10th anniversary, Mbeki wrote a withering criticism of the AU, which, he claimed, had become a stooge of Western interests (the 2011 U.N. intervention in Libya, which Mbeki saw as strictly an African problem, especially enraged him): preoccupied with petty politics, lacking both "self-determination" and a coherent vision, and reflecting the "malaise that is poisoning the African body politic."

Perhaps he’s right about the malaise. The AU’s current chairperson is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma — Zuma’s ex-wife. South Africa lobbied aggressively (some say bullied) to win Dlamini-Zuma the post, facing unexpected resistance from Francophone Africa and countries that view South Africa as already too-dominant a force in the regional body. The fact that Dlamini-Zuma, who is often tipped to become South Africa’s first female president, did not immediately win the position was a source of embarrassment to South Africa. (One South African who was against Dlamini-Zuma’s nomination was Mbeki, who may have been hoping to regain the top AU job for himself.)

But if, after last month’s elections, it’s Groundhog Day in Zimbabwe, it’s the same for South Africa as well. After the 2008 Zimbabwe elections, the Zimbabwean journalist Dianna Games wrote in Business Day that the AU "has done everything in its power to keep the Zimbabwe issue off the main agenda of discussions on the basis that it was ‘divisive.’" Five years later, nothing has changed. Mbeki was always sensitive to publicly criticizing other African leaders, and this trait continues in the AU today.

As Reuters’ Cris Chinaka notes, Zuma’s endorsement of Mugabe’s electoral victory reflects "a willingness by the continent’s diplomatic bodies to swallow the re-election of Mugabe for the sake of regional stability." Writing for the South African political website Daily Maverick, Simon Allison argues that the AU favors stability at the expense of democracy: "It’s easy to see why the AU would be so keen to embrace these decidedly flawed results … The last time Robert Mugabe lost an election the consequences were disastrous, not just for Zimbabwe, but for the region and for the continent as a whole. Zimbabwe’s economic collapse and post-election violence was incredibly destabilizing for Africa, and if there’s one thing that the AU prizes above all else … it’s stability. If you’re in power the AU is generally happier to see you stay there, regardless of your governance record, approach to human rights or the quality of the elections that put you there."

The trend goes beyond Harare. According to R.W. Johnson, the AU’s preference for authoritarian rule is nothing new. He notes that, in 2002, Madagascar’s then-new president, Marc Ravalomanana, was not allowed to attend the launch of the AU. The AU considered Ravalomanana’s election invalid, though Madagascar’s High Constitutional Court argued otherwise. Johnson suspects that the AU was acting in solidarity with defeated president Didier Ratsiraka, who, like Mugabe, had ruled his country for 33 years. Johnson writes, "Quite clearly, the AU was still an old boys’ club of leaders."

As long as South Africa continues to steer the AU, don’t expect any criticism of Zimbabwe. Johnson notes that as far back as December 2001, "the AU’s Commission of Human and People’s Rights tabled a report criticizing Mugabe’s human rights record but South Africa and Zimbabwe invented pretexts to stop the AU from considering it: first that it had not been translated into French, then that Zimbabwe’s government had not been consulted."

In this respect, the modern AU is reminiscent of the old Africa, which takes care of its politicians and its ruling class at the expense of its people and its policies. But the AU does not need to be revived once again. It just needs better leaders. Africa does, too. For over a decade, critics have warned that South Africa must put in place a policy of tough-love on Zimbabwe, before it’s too late. But the sad truth is that it is already too late. And the AU, which could have used this election to prove its democratic integrity, has revealed itself as an enabler and a fraud.

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