And so the cries of “something must be done” reach a crescendo. I must say, though, that while what’s going on in Zimbabwe is appalling enough, it’s hard not to feel a little cynicism about some of the international chest-beating. Why now, and why Zimbabwe? When I ask why now, I mean that anyone with eyes to see had long since known how rotten the Mugabe regime was. Back in the 1980s, on Mrs Thatcher’s watch no less, the old man was responsible for a truly horrific scorched-earth policy in Matabeleland, not to mention loudly proclaiming his intention to set up a one-party state, and few people in the corridors of power batted an eyelid. Is it mere coincidence that he became a pariah precisely when he started expropriating the white farmers?
And I also ask, why Zimbabwe? There are other places in Africa just as bad or worse. DR Congo springs to mind as being a genuine hell on earth, where literally millions have been slaughtered, yet nobody seems in a particular hurry to help the Congolese. Certainly they don’t get anything like the news coverage. I’m not disputing for a moment that there are genuine humanitarian motives involved here, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that a lot of folks in Britain have never forgiven Mugabe for defeating Good Old Smithy.
Anyway, in some cases cynicism is absolutely the correct response. New Labour, for their part, are as cynical as a bunch of Italian footballers. Here’s Gordon Brown championing free and fair elections in Zimbabwe when he’s just been glad-handing some pretty grisly Middle Eastern despots. And, when you hear Paddy Pantsdown talk about military intervention, the first thing that comes to mind is that the former king of Bosnia must have his eye on another imperial sinecure.
But let’s set all that aside for a moment. Assume that you’re a well-meaning interventionist. What actually can be done? As I see it, there are three options, none of them particularly appealing.
Number one is to send in the troops. The immediate problem there is that the British armed forces are already overstretched, and the Yanks too focused on Iran. It also might look bad if a mainly white British army starts going around invading African countries. The French, of course, are a lot less PC about this. If Zimbabwe was a former French colony, the French paratroops would have landed long ago, possibly with an Irish battalion in tow. But the Brits are sensitive to the optics.
The second possibility is an African intervention. This seems to be the people’s choice at the moment, hence all the pressure on Mbeki. The template would be the Tanzanian invasion of Uganda that got rid of Idi Amin, although in terms of outcomes replacing Amin with Obote was a bit like replacing Tiberius with Caligula. The advantage would be that an African force wouldn’t look like recolonisation. It’s also true that there is little love lost between Mugabe and the ANC. (This goes back to Cold War days, when the ANC and Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU were backed by the Soviets, while ZANU maintained links with China.) But the South Africans these days prefer diplomatic solutions, and aren’t keen to repeat the apartheid regime’s adventure in Angola. What’s more, some of the surrounding countries have regimes that may be worried about what hopes an intervention for democracy in Zimbabwe might stir up at home.
Option three is to privatise the intervention. One thinks of Mr Tony Blair’s inspired decision to hire a bunch of spivs to invade Sierra Leone. The ignominious failure of the Wonga Coup in Equatorial Guinea has made that kind of free-market interventionism look pretty bad for the time being. More realistically, there is the possibility of arming and training Zimbabwean refugees for a guerrilla struggle. That would require the support or at least the acquiescence of the South Africans, who don’t seem very interested, and the possibility of your Zimbabwean allies developing their own agenda.
So things aren’t looking too good for the advocates of humanitarian militarism being able to do anything more than wring their hands. Even if they succeeded, Iraq and Afghanistan – not to mention the Ethiopian experience in Somalia – show that it’s one thing to knock over a Third World despotism, it’s another thing entirely to put something workable in its place. And don’t forget that, though Mugabe has now entered into liberal demonology in the same role once played by Saddam and Milošević, there’s no such thing as a one-man regime. There is also the ZANU-PF apparat, the police, the army, and last but not least the heavily armed and unpredictable veterans’ movement. And are we even clear about how much direct control Mugabe has over the various parts of the regime? It’s at least a possibility worth considering that, with the veterans’ movement, he’s created a Frankenstein’s monster just like the British did with the UDA.
No, it’s likely that any real change is going to have to come from within Zimbabwe. The country’s working class has a very strong recent tradition of militancy, despite the MDC having done a lot to demobilise it, and it’s always possible that there will be another upsurge in struggle. There are signs of fissures within ZANU-PF. There’s also the real possibility that the Zimbabwean army might start kicking up, especially with the legacy of Mugabe’s vanity intervention in the Congo. All in all, when it comes to kicking out the despot Mugabe, the Zimbabwean people have plenty of resources of their own. We shouldn’t be kidded into thinking of them as just passive victims waiting for the white man to save the day. If we accept that logic, you might as well just re-establish Rhodesia.