Africa's Leaders and the Crisis in Zimbabwe

By Taylor, Ian | Contemporary Review, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Africa's Leaders and the Crisis in Zimbabwe


Taylor, Ian, Contemporary Review


FEW events in Africa in recent years have so excited world opinion as the downward spiral of Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe and the years of chaos and terror under his rule. The slide into lawlessness, the wholesale illegal confiscation of land, the general free-fall of the Zimbabwean economy and the presidential competition between Mugabe of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Popular Front (ZANU-PF) and Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, have been the stuff of many editorials and commentaries in all the main newspapers, both in the West and in Africa.

At the same time however, the situation in Zimbabwe has highlighted the perpetual reluctance of African elites to criticise one of their own, particularly in the light of African leaders' reactions to what most people saw as fundamentally rigged elections. This point raises profound questions as to the credibility of the New Economic Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

The NEPAD was launched in October 2001 and was a supposed blueprint for Africa's regeneration. The document asserts that 'African peoples have begun to demonstrate their refusal to accept poor economic and political leadership. These developments are, however, uneven and inadequate and need to be further expedited'. There is, so the NEPAD claims, 'a new resolve to deal with conflicts and censure deviation from the [democratic] norm'. This springs from the view that 'development is impossible in the absence of true democracy, respect for human rights, peace and good governance'. The NEPAD shows, the document claims, that 'Africa undertakes to respect the global standards of democracy ... political pluralism, allowing for the existence of several political parties and workers' unions, fair, open, free and democratic elections periodically organised to enable the populace choose their leaders freely'. In short, 'a democratic Africa will become one of the pillars of world democracy, human rights and tolerance', i n partnership with the developed world who have certain 'responsibilities and obligations' to support the NEPAD.

Tragically, that the NEPAD only lasted less than six months before its credibility was fatally undermined demonstrates the fickle nature of African elite politics. The much-vaunted desire to alter the 'rules of the game' on how the continent interacts with the West, without any real reciprocal change in the behaviour of African elites - an absolute precondition if such 'Partnerships' are ever to be taken seriously - now seems to be a one-way street of demands but no duties on the part of Africa's presidents. To put it bluntly, that will never wash in the global corridors of power and it is naive of African leaders to think otherwise. Fatigue with Africa's incessant problems is already high and, even though not all Africa's malaise is of its own making, the refusal of African leaders to get their own houses in order further exacerbates such negative attitudes in London, Washington, Paris and other Western centres of power.

In the case of Zimbabwe, although there were repeated attempts to muddy the water over the real problems in Zimbabwe, particularly with incessant appeals to 'the land issue' and a desperate playing of the race card, the real issue was the concerted effort by Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party to retain their hold on political power. That African leaders chose to ignore this and rather seek to cast it as some sort of 'neo-imperialist' reaction shows, it seems, that even now in 2002, bad governance, corruption, violence and vote-rigging will, at the final analysis, be defended to the hilt by many African presidents. Mugabe's record on the economy, setting aside the land issue, the Matabeleland massacres, the one-party state and myriad other markers of his rule, has been lamentable. After twenty years of ZANU-PF control, not only are Zimbabwe's citizens one-third poorer than they were at independence, but, according to IMF figures, Zimbabwe has gained the dubious distinction of being the world's fastest-shrinking economy.

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