Sometimes doing the obvious thing is not the right thing. There was much cheering when Gordon Brown let it be known that he would boycott the forthcoming summit between the European Union and Africa if Robert Mugabe were allowed to attend. There can be no doubt that the present parlous state of Zimbabwe is largely due to the incompetence, ruthlessness, and megalomania of its long-serving President.
The country that was once the bread-basket of southern Africa now has four million people going hungry. Four million more have fled the country. Some 85 per cent of the population are unemployed. Life expectancy, which was 60 in 1990, is now just 37, the lowest in the world. Opposition politicians have been ruthlessly beaten. The homes of their supporters have been bulldozed. The courts and the media are tamed. The police are Mugabe stooges. Elections have been a sham.
It is high time that Britain took a stand, lobbyists such as the Archbishop of York pronounced (News, 21 September). This is why there was such bien pensant applause at Mr Brown’s decision to be seen to get tough. But will it achieve the desired end? Or will Mr Brown’s new hard
line play right into the hands of an African tyrant who wants to paint the situation as a battle between the British and Zimbabweans?
It is instructive to ask why other Africans have not acted to pressurise, or oust, Mr Mugabe. There is a complex interplay of motives. For a start, whether London likes it or not, he is still widely revered for his part in the continent’s struggle for independence. Then there is the automatic respect due in Africa (and in a degree that is beyond our cultural ken) to the elder, which places younger leaders, such as Thabo Mbeki in South Africa, in a delicate position.
Most significantly, there is a widespread sense that, although Mr Mugabe disastrously mishandled the seizure of white-owned farms and undermined Zimbabwe’s ability to feed itself, there was a basic post-colonial injustice to be addressed: 4000 white farmers, less than one per cent of the population, held 70 per cent of the best land. Britain is also seen as having reneged on the Lancaster House agreement, which said that it would finance the compensation to white farmers as their land was gradually handed over to blacks.
There are complex counter-arguments to be made to most of the above points. But what is clear is that condemnation by the former colonial power is unlikely to do anything other than bolster Mr Mugabe’s position. “Ratcheting up the pressure from Britain”, said a senior member of the opposition in Zimbabwe, “does very little.” The opposition had advised London to allow Mr Mugabe to attend the summit — and force him to sit through a public debate on his terrible human-rights record.
Predictably, the situation is polarising people. President Mwanawasa of Zambia, who heads the 14-nation African group that is seeking a solution in Zimbabwe, has now said that, if Mr Mugabe does not attend the summit, then he, and many other African leaders, will also refuse to attend, thus jeopardising important discussions on migration and climate change.
South Africa has been hosting talks between leading members of Mr Mugabe’s ruling party and the Zimbabwean opposition. For the first time, there is “guarded optimism” that progress may be made on a Mugabe succession. South African officials privately say that the timing of Mr Brown’s statement has been “unhelpful”. Sadly, the new Prime Minister would not be the first British politician to have misread the mood in both Zimbabwe and Africa. Good intentions are no substitute for canny tactics.
Paul Vallely is co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa.