The West's gift to Robert Mugabe

Two years on from the signing of a power-sharing agreement between President Robert Mugabe and his main political opponents, Zimbabwe faces a crunch meeting at a summit in Angola this week.

The leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have demanded a “road map” for the implementation of the agreement, including timetabled commitments for human rights and rule of law reforms and the adoption of a new constitution. This should pave the way for elections next year which could mark the country’s return to democracy after decades of authoritarian rule and economic disarray.

I visited Zimbabwe last month, as part of a delegation from the International Bar Association, and we met a range of civil society activists, senior lawyers and government ministers, including the prime minister and leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai.

It was clear to us that the transition towards a fully democratic state continues to be piecemeal and painfully slow. Virtually everyone we met from civil society and the MDC had been arrested, some quite recently, and many of these had been badly tortured.

Yet the mood we encountered was cautiously optimistic.
Mugabe is now 87-years-old and visibly weakening. Even members of his own Zanu-PF talked openly about the future when he steps down from power, with some acknowledging that he should not lead the country into the elections next year. There is a strong desire to avoid a return to the violence that has accompanied previous elections—in which hundreds of people have been killed—and a real hope that the international community could help to ensure a peaceful transition.

Routine police harassment
Zimbabwe has clawed itself back from almost total economic collapse over the past two years under its power-sharing government. There have been some tangible advances, such as an increase in media freedom, although police harassment remains routine. The MDC government ministers we met are working hard to try to turn some state institutions around, getting children back to school and encouraging donors and foreign investors to re-engage with the country.

Unfortunately the current policy of Western governments, such as Britain, the United States and the European Union, means they cannot reciprocally engage.

An end to Western sanctions has become one of the last rallying calls of hardliners within Zanu-PF. They are determined to cling to power, not least because they fear prosecution for their many crimes of violence and corruption in their years of misrule.

The sanctions referred to are a series of measures implemented by the US and EU. The most direct of these are visa restrictions against a group of named Zanu-PF leaders and their wives, and a freezing of their foreign bank accounts. They also include the ending of all grants and loans to Zimbabwe’s government on a bilateral or multilateral basis.

Sanctions not intended to hurt ordinary people
Although Western donors assured us these measures were not intended to hurt the ordinary people of Zimbabwe, they admitted this was how they had been presented. They provide a convenient excuse for Zanu-PF’s disastrous mishandling of the economy over the past two decades and allow Mugabe to continue to portray himself as a victim of “Western imperialism”. Significantly, both SADC and the African Union have repeatedly called for all sanctions to be ended.

The discovery of a large field of diamonds in Zimbabwe in 2008 has actually reduced the practical significance of these measures still further. As China continues to expand its economic influence into Africa, the leverage of Western donors is growing correspondingly weaker.

However, SADC has an opportunity to show real leadership to improve the human rights record of its member states—where developments in Malawi, Angola and Swaziland should also be cause for concern. Western governments should focus their efforts on engaging with the new diplomacy that is emerging on the continent. -

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