How do you solve a problem like Uncle Bob?

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.


  1. Jack R said,

    June 24, 2008 at 11:43 am

    did you read the interview with the ISO Zimbabwe member in the last Weekly Worker. He seemed to think that the problem was that the MDC doesn’t really have a Plan B to Mugabe surrendering power in elections. Which is remiss on their part, I think the first round did expose some weaknesses in the regime, which could have been exploited if plans had been in place.

  2. johng said,

    June 24, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    Failing to participate in the elections is another sign of the MDC’s appalling politics (which largely revolve around hoping for foreign intervention). It will set the movement back terribly and must be seen as a terrible betrayel by all those who have suffered the repression, but again and again, had expressed their determination to vote. I think from the beginning this failure of the MDC to do anything else but try and look respectable before the international community has been Mugabe ace in the hole. I simply couldn’t believe it when I heard. It means there is no framework for the struggle inside Zimbabwe itself anymore, and probably no alternative now but the slow distintergration of the regime and terrible suffering, with the MDC possibly being installed by various IO’s after the fall. Disaster.

  3. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 24, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    It sounds plausible to me. Tsvangirai has been putting a lot of effort into doing the rounds of western capitals, but that’s no substitute at all for mobilising his base. Even if the MDC do get themselves installed, that’s an awful lot of momentum they’ve thrown away.

  4. johng said,

    June 24, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    On reflection its as good an argument against the politics involved in the new agenda of humanitarian intervention as any. Leaders emerge who can leverage out local forces (in the case of Zimbabwe the more working class and trade union sections) on the basis of their international contacts. The international contacts are above all concerned with a smooth transition in which the result will be a new leadership wholly dependent on them. The result is a movement which has constantly failed to harness the real anger against mugabe and has repeatedly stalled whenever the prospect of regime change has been in the offing. So Tsvangirai says ‘Mugabe promised war and we won’t take part in his war’, which means only that the war will be totally one-sided. In this situation the regime sticks togeather in the hope of a miracle, and there is no domestic movement which can harness all the bravery and determination of the activists who could otherwise excercise a centripedal force on the regime itself. Result? a year more of moralising bleating from the international community, patchy sanctions, collapse and civil war, and finally a state which is little more then a collection of aid agencies, with all the radical hopes and dreams of an entire generation pulverised.

  5. d@\/e said,

    June 24, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    There’s always the Mark Thatcher & friends option, or are they all in prison? 😉

  6. June 25, 2008 at 4:01 am

    […] Zimbabwe – confusing, innit? Follow the coverage in the liberal media and you’d assume that it’s the worst human rights disaster since young Adolf developed a jackboot fetish. Go along to almost any political meeting in Bristol, on the other hand, and you’ll be treated to our friends from the Stalin Society * extolling the virtues of Uncle Bob’s firm but fair anti-imperialist regime. For a more balanced perspective, you might want to check out this excellent article on Splintered Sunrise. […]

  7. john b said,

    June 25, 2008 at 10:40 am

    Agreed on the conclusion.

    1) isn’t it a bit pathetic to refer to Lord Ashdown as “Pantsdown”, 20 years after his not-at-all-relevant-to-anything affair?

    2) I missed the bit where Blair hired mercenaries to invade Sierra Leone – I thought the Nigerians overthrew the first coup in 1998, then a force of UN troops did first badly, then adequately, at peacekeeping vs the rebels from 2000-05…

  8. yourcousin said,

    June 25, 2008 at 11:04 am

    While not nessecarily looking to Europe or America for help African nations definitely have a role to play in helping the situation in Zimbabwe. Look at the recent refusal by South African longshoremen in unloading Chinese weapons destined for Zimbabwe. If only the politicians in South Africa had that much resolve something might actually be done, but I doubt it.

    I am surprised at the harsh attitude towards the MDC. Not that they are beyond reproach, but it is hardly fair to somehow blame them for not being able to get rid of Mugabe on their own. They are a political party in the civic realm where they remain firmly and often frustratingly rooted. The fact that a civic society has never taken hold in Zimbabwe is sad but it is laubable that they are trying for it. The MDC is doing what so many before have done, is ask the West to live up to its propaganda about respecting freedom and democracy and the right of the vote. And like the Bosnians and Chechens before them they are learning that even if Dubya names your country as an “outpost of tyranny” they will do little but whinge, or as of this morning, refuse to recognize the election results.

    SS, Tsvangirai already mobilized his base and by doing so won the election. But not by enough apparently. I’m sure you have already seen the war veteran’s statement that “we took power with a gun, we will not give it away with a vote”. And the army as well has already said that it’s job was to support Mugabe, not ensure a free and fair run off. Short of starting their own insurrection I don’t see what you all would the MDC to do. For goodness sake, you whinge when about the socialist leadership doing smear campaigns. Surely, being beaten, arrested, having pogroms directed at your supporteers and having them attacked and killed buys the MDC some whinging rights?

  9. yourcousin said,

    June 25, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Sorry, should say, “…I don’t see what you all would like the MDC to do…”

  10. ejh said,

    June 25, 2008 at 11:51 am

    I’m strongly inclined to agree with yourcousin. I mean if the MDC were to call for an insurrection, wouldn’t that in practice be a very quick way of finding themselves dead?

    (PS – is WordPress doing that thing again whereby new comments start appearing before comments that were there when they were made?)

  11. johng said,

    June 25, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    Its not about calling for an insurrection though. Its about not banking everything on international intervention and deserting their own followers (who actually were prepared to stand up to the repression as numerous reports indicated). And now I read, as expected, that far from mitigating the repression, Mugabe has moved onto the offensive. The abandonment of the election was designed to spur the ‘international community’ fowards (I read today the MDC is calling for military intervention) not to avoid repression which their followers face anyway. Its also likely that given the narrowness of the lead that the MDC had, that the option of regime disintergration followed by foreign intervention looks more attractive then the kind of mass struggle which would likely have ensued if the election had gone ahead. The result will be precisely as in Bosnia and in Kosova etc. Prolonged suffering followed by puppet regimes installed by IO’s which grotesquely live up to the epithet currently put about by Mugabe. The whole politics represented by this strand is a disaster. Of course I back the MDC against Mugabe. But the tactics reflect the political path of seeing your main allies as ‘the international community’ and not the mass of the population in your own country (this should of course in no case be confused with internationalism, of which the South African dockers strike was a welcome and wonderful example).

  12. June 26, 2008 at 7:34 am

    […] How do you solve a problem like Uncle Bob? « Splintered Sunrise Some common sense about Zimbabwe at last. Shame it means that there’s not much we can usefully do: the solution has to come from within (tags: zimbabwe rsa politics news 2008 africa) […]

  13. johng said,

    June 26, 2008 at 10:46 am

    If you read todays Guardian you will see a very wierd letter from Tsvangairi which seems to indicate internal tensions about just what ‘international civil society’ strategy means. The point about the distinction between left internationalism and the kind of thing your cousin talked about. Because the international community, like it or not, is made up of States, and those States are not keen on, for instance, workers solidarity because that threatens them as well. Of course the idea is that ‘international civil society’ pressures States to act, but once you allocate States the central role in this fashion, it is their interests, and not the interests of activists that move to the fore.

  14. yourcousin said,

    June 26, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    With almost one hundred people killed, and around 200,000 driven from their homes (since the first election) I would venture a guess that mass suffering has already ensued. It is quite possible that the MDC leadership simply looked at the writing on the wall and saw how their campaigning has been disrupted and realized that the election would simply be more of the same with a probable increase in attacks on MDC supporters. But going through with that excercise would add an air of legitimacy to the whole charade.

    It is odd that only now are states talking about the fact that an election would not be free or fair, now that Tsvangairi has pulled out but not before when it was quite obvious that this was the case since the announcement of a runoff. John, you are quite right to point out that states have different interests than say the average MDC activists, but they can still be useful. I do not know if the SADC would be as vocal if Western powers were not shaking their sabers in feigned moral outrage. South Africa is all too aware that as the situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates that the influx of immigrants increases and contributes to domestic unrest. So their actions which are too little too late, are not based solely on altruism but are still to be welcomed never the less. There are few players here who are truely being altruistic, but such is the world we find ourselves in. But there are limits to what is feasible for the MDC being that they chose to contest elections. And even civil disobedience or other type of campaigns would quite clearly rely on the support of the international community being that the state apparatus has shown quite clearly its true colors and thinks nothing of a campaign of domestic terrorism. That being said, what is coming up is a point where the interests of the international community states and that of democracy actually do intersect which is for the MDC to take power as they won in the elections, which were themselves not entirely without some lingering doubts on honesty.

    And at the risk of dovetailing off into a whole other tangent we do well to remember that Yugoslavia was a disintegrating state and not quite the same thing as Zimbabwe. Also while certainly Kosovo owes its status to the US intervention of late. I don’t see them or Bosnia as purely puppet states set up to further Western imperial hedgemony around the world. To me, when your government starts ethnic cleansing you, you have the right to say thanks but no thanks to that country and go your seperate ways as the governing power (in the case of Yugoslavia, Serbia) loses any legitimacy in governance due to their behavior. But like I said, that’s another tangent.

  15. ray p said,

    June 27, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    Your cousin I am firmly convinced that the MDC have got this badly wrong. I* agree completely however that it is all too easy from the comfort of liberal democracy to criticise an organisation which ahs had members killed in their cause. Nevertheless, as well as the first post relating to ISO and WW can I refer you to the ISOs own blog which has a more detailed analysis.

    I think those of us who supported ZANU against Smith UDI are dissillusioned that Mugabe appears to have gone a similar route to Obote and Nkomo, who as far as I am aware never professed themsselves as Marxist revolutuionaries.

    Ex colonists and their pals do have a lot to answer for with the lack of support in restructuring agriculture and compensating white farmers. I cant think that there are many on the left who would disagree with nationalising the land. Bt the way it has been done and who benefited are an example to be avoided if it ever happened in South Africa. The World Bank and IMF and their neo con agenda has also contributed. So it is a mess.

    One of Mugabe better actions was putting Nicholas Van Hoogstraten behind bars.

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