Argument

Mugabe’s New Best Friends in Brussels

Why is Europe suddenly cozying up to Zimbabwe’s nonagenarian kleptocrat?

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe addre
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe addresses the nation as Zimbabwe celebrates 30 years of independence from Britain, in Harare on April 18, 2010. President Robert Mugabe issued an unprecedented appeal for an end to politically and racially driven violence in Zimbabwe, as the nation marked 30 years of independence. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER JOE (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)

On February 21, Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe celebrated his 91st birthday followed by a lavish party with an exotic menu, reportedly including barbequed baby elephant. The brazen celebration was yet another reminder of the stark contrast between the increasingly venal lifestyles of the country’s politically-connected nouveau riche and regular Zimbabweans, who are now poorer than they were when Mugabe came to power nearly 35 years ago. At a time when African economies are booming, Zimbabwe is going in the other direction, as evidenced by plunging incomes and massive flight of the professional classes. A few elites and a few foreign companies are getting rich, but life is getting worse for ordinary citizens.

Mugabe’s birthday party is hardly the only act of shamelessness coming out of Harare. Blatant intimidation and vote manipulation allowed the ruling ZANU-PF party to steal elections in 2008 and again in 2013. Close observers of Zimbabwe’s politics know that systematic violence and election malfeasance were deployed to secure the vote. No matter the public’s preferences, Mugabe would simply never allow ZANU-PF to lose at the ballot box. What’s changed recently is that the party isn’t even bothering to deny its misdeeds anymore. Last week, Mugabe’s newly appointed vice president openly bragged about rigging the vote.

Which makes it all the more perplexing that Europe is choosing this particular moment to break ranks with the rest of the West and cozy up to Zimbabwe.

For the past dozen years or so, Western countries have been largely united in their condemnation and isolation of the Mugabe regime in response to human rights abuses, the undermining of democracy, and the breakdown of rule of law. In 2002, both Australia and the EU ended direct government aid, imposed an arms embargo, and added travel and financial sanctions on select ZANU-PF members. The U.S. Congress passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA) in 2001 with strong bipartisan support. Both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, then senators, were co-sponsors. The White House also directed the U.S. Treasury to impose targeted sanctions on specially designated individuals. That list is regularly revised while conditions for removal of U.S. sanctions were very clear (a good summary is here.)

Suddenly, however, the European stance is looking shaky. Last month the EU whittled down the list of those on the travel and asset freeze to just two people: Mugabe and his wife, Grace (fresh from receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Zimbabwe in a suspiciously short amount of time). The EU also resumed aid with a pledge of some $260 million, signaling a shift in approach from sticks to carrots.

So why is Europe suddenly warming to Zimbabwe? The Europeans themselves have offered few explanations beyond bland platitudes about fruitful dialogues and joint frameworks, leaving the rest of us to guess at their motivations. So here are a few possible reasons for the reconciliation, along with my — admittedly skeptical — reactions:

  1. Zimbabwe has restored democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law.

Um, no.

  1. Europe is willfully blind to what’s happening and who’s responsible for worsening conditions.

When announcing the resumption of aid, a jovial EU ambassador to Zimbabwe, Phillip van Damme, claimed, “In a true partnership among equals, we may sometimes diverge in opinion and vision. But those divergences can be overcome through real, frank and open dialogue without taboos. It’s like in a marriage.” While diplomats in the field sometimes get lost in their bubble or mistake cocktail parties for real politics, I just cannot believe that European policymakers are under the illusion that the problems in Zimbabwe are from a lack of communication. Do the Europeans really believe they will overcome their differences with the government of Zimbabwe on torture, land grabbing, vote stealing, and diamond theft via open dialogue? Surely not.

  1. Lifting sanctions removes one of the regime’s principal excuses for its economic collapse.

This may be true, but it’s also pointless.

ZANU-PF has consistently blamed Western sanctions and various external plots for Zimbabwe’s economic troubles. This doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. U.S. sanctions, for instance, are targeted against only 113 individuals and 70 entities they control, rather than the whole country. Similarly, Harare also blames sanctions for its inability to get new loans from the World Bank and other international creditors — another falsehood. The U.S. might try to block new loans in the future, but so far this has been unnecessary — Zimbabwe’s credit cutoff is self-imposed, the result of years of non-payment leading to more than $5 billion in outstanding arrears. Despite these facts, “sanctions” have arguably provided ZANU-PF a rhetorical device for shifting blame to outsiders. So, the argument goes, lifting sanctions would deny Mugabe that excuse.

Perhaps. But then what next? What would the lack of the sanctions scapegoat actually change? It’s implausible that sanctions removal would lead to a meaningful difference in either voting outcomes or government behavior. In fact, lifting sanctions would allow Mugabe to claim a propaganda victory and yet another vanquishing of his imperialist oppressors and their local stooges. Any proponent of sanctions removal should be able to credibly articulate how such a step encourages a path to the restoration of democracy and the rule of law. I’ve yet to hear anything but naïve wishful thinking.

  1. Re-engagement can help lead to reform.

It is true that Western countries often engage with distasteful regimes and do so in part with the hope that they can nudge them toward better behavior by changing incentives and supporting reformers on the inside. (In some cases, this is moral expediency in the name of national security or major economic interests — but neither of these applies to Zimbabwe.)

Those who argue for embracing Harare should know that there are very few signs that greater engagement will create incentives for reform or to bolster democratic champions. In Zimbabwe’s current circumstances, any new aid or flexibility will likely only further entrench the current coterie around Mugabe. Any new support for the current government will strengthen the hand of the military elites who are effectively running the country, especially the vice president and heir apparent, Emmerson Mnangagwa. The “Crocodile” is a former security and intelligence chief who is believed to be responsible for, among other things, the murder of up to 20,000 Zimbabwean civilians during the early 1980s (see: the Gukurahundi massacres). It’s inconceivable that such a person could lead a democratic Zimbabwe.

With Brussels now relinquishing responsibility for the fate of Zimbabwe, Washington and Canberra have to stand their ground. Once Mugabe is gone, there may be a new window for helping to shape a better future for Zimbabwe, but while the same cabal of the same old men remain in control, we shouldn’t expect much to change. In the meantime, the ethical and strategic move is to keep Mugabe and his birthday party guests at arm’s length. To appease a brutal dictator and his henchmen is to wind up on the wrong side of history.

ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

Todd Moss, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, is senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

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