What on earth were people expecting?
The buzz leading up to today's meeting of the South African Development Community (SADC) centered around "what are Zimbabwe's neighbors going to do about Robert Mugabe and his demolition of Zimbabwe"?
For weeks, western governments and eminent personalities such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu have been requesting, nay, demanding that Mugabe's neighbors work together to bring an end to the seemingly interminable crisis in Zimbabwe. So again, what would the response from Mugabe's neighbors be now that the eyes of the world are fixed squarely on them?
Frankly, I find it nothing short of appalling that otherwise sensible journalists and media pundits would even frame this as a "question". Where the hell have they been for the past 20 years? Anyone who has a shred of sense could have told you the obvious answer in advance:
That's right - nothing. After the summit, all 14 leaders issued a statement pledging support for and solidarity with Robert Mugabe. No matter how disastrous Mugabe's misrule, no matter how dismal the human rights situation is, no matter how low the life expectancy drops, no matter how high the inflation or unemployment, there's not a single thing Mugabe's peers will say, much less do, about it.
Back when African summits were regularly derided as "meetings of the dictators' club", it was considered bad form for one dictator to denounce another dictator for, well, being a dictator. Since then, African nations have made considerable progress replacing some of the old "big man" dictatorships with more democratic governments. However, the buzzwords "democracy", "accountability", and "African solutions to African problems" are fine sentiments, but to date, completely meaningless when dealing with problems like Robert Mugabe. Just as in the days of the dictator club, African leaders are loathe to criticize someone like Mugabe, who was, after all, a hero of Zimbabwe's war of independence and a crucial ally in the anti-apartheid struggle.
South African president Thabo Mbeki is one such leader who owes his career to the leaders of South Africa's neighbors, like Mugabe. Dictators like Mugabe, who provided political assistance to the African National Congress, and military assistance to the party's military wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe, were thousands of times more valuable to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa than anything anyone outside Africa did for South Africa. Old comrades stick together, right? And after all, if anyone starts putting pressure on Mugabe, might people start talking about the lack of political freedoms in their countries? They certainly don't want to see that trend taking off.
Right. So when Thabo Mbeki assured the world that it was engaged in "quiet diplomacy" with Mugabe, it was because saying "frankly, we're friendly with Robert Mugabe and want to keep it that way" doesn't play well in the international press. After all, the new democratic South Africa might actually have a moral obligation to provide leadership in the region, right? I can see why Mbeki might want to nip that sort of heavy political responsibility in the bud before the world expects to rely on South Africa to play a role proportional to their economic and political influence to assist Africa's transition from dictatorships to democracy.
Of course, it's somewhat unfair to single out Mugabe's neighbors for their inaction when the rest of the world can't be bothered to do anything except issue a constant stream of self-righteous indignation. As the Rwandan genocide proved, a non-stop stream of indignant condemnations by the powerful will alleviate some of the guilt over doing nothing to stop the problem in the first place. Even when the catastrophe has burned itself out, and people start pointing the finger at you for doing nothing, you can shrug your shoulders and hastily respond that you had only the best of intentions all along.
UPDATE: I don't imagine this surprises anyone, either.
UPDATE II: Thank you, Joshua Wanyama, for linking to this article, and welcome African Path readers!
Friday, March 30, 2007
What on earth were people expecting?