The Case Against Mugabe

May 15, 2009 § Leave a comment


Where we have Hope: A Memoir of Zimbabwe is the powerful first person account of an American journalist, Andrew Meldrum, who came to the newborn and newly christened nation of Zimbabwe in 1980, and stayed on until he was forcibly deported by the Mugabe government in 2003.

The landscape he paints is so familiar to western eyes that it is now a cliche. An African nation throws off minority white rule, crowns the leader of the freedom-fighters President, and watches him morph steadily into an autocrat for life, intent on self-aggrandizing, preoccupied with fighting off other rebel forces and dedicating state machinery to the sole purpose of crushing all opposition to himself. The West reacts with sanctions and sanctimony, and the dictator responds with indignation and contempt, his defiant bombast making him even more of a ridiculous caricature than before. The relationship between the African despot and the Western press is particularly fascinating – the dictator hates what they print about him, never fails to point out their hypocrisy (“where was all this outrage when the white men were treating us like dogs?”) but he needs them, too: his megalomania makes him crave the attention of the world and the admiration of all Africa. The story he is painting is uncomplicated as well: “White Men ruined our continent and made beggars and slaves of us. Having sucked out our life-blood, they left us to fend for ourselves, and now mock us from afar as savages unfit to rule ourselves. By treating them like trash, I am setting an example to all Africans to get over their inferiority complexes and rise to meet their destiny.”

The press, on their part, hang on to his every word, while finding him repulsive. ‘Corrupt African Dictator On Rabid Rant While Millions Die’ sells more copies than any attempt to analyze the problems of the country in depth, including those caused by the West, and suggest real solutions even at the expense of Western commercial interests. Surely readers of the article, even as they tut-tut to themselves and turn the page to something else, feel unconsciously relieved and reassured to hear that Other People have worse governments than their own.

In a way, the African dictator and the Western press need each other to perpetuate their own myths about themselves and each other. They circle around, locked in a dans macabre, while AIDS, malnutrition and malaria pick off, at leisure, the very people they pretend to care for.

Having never lived in Zimbabwe (unlike the author), and not even having followed the fortunes of its people too closely, I have no intention of questioning any of the facts Meldrum brings to light, nor of condoning any of the murders, police beatings or state terrorism unleashed by the Mugabe administration. But it just occurs to me that placing the entire blame on a single man – Robert Mugabe – is a bit too smooth and convenient. Could macro-economic factors not have contributed as well?

Please humour me as I hypothesise the following, based purely on snippets of information available from the book. Remember that a large part of the land was owned by white Rhodesians – for generations. They had dispossessed native Africans from the land and pushed them into the hills ages ago (where was all the outrage then?!). These families continued to own the best land, with the most capital and the best farm equipment at their disposal. On the other hand, a generation of African young men, having spent a dozen years of their early adulthood in the jungles fighting a guerrilla war against the colonial masters, came out blinking into the sunlight at independence and needed a new livelihood, with little training or tradition in modern farming methods, and no land to call their own. These men could have drifted into crime, or rebelling yet again – as a politician, Mugabe had to ride the tiger, feed it, or be eaten by it. Either way, the cycle repeats with the next set of rebels and leaders (who sells them guns?!). The Mugabe’s and Idi Amins didn’t create the cycle. It is too big for them to create. They could have, at grave personal risk, attempted to break it – but then it is not easy to be Nelson Mandela. The tragedy of Africa is that those of its leaders who fail at being angels are doomed to be demons.

Now, having only read the one, rather slim, book on Zimbabwe, I will not pretend that I have understood a continent and reduced its plight to a 900-word post – but I do make a convincing case, I hope, for attempting to understand both sides of any argument. Simple explanations (including my own) are likely to be, at best, partially true, and at worst, completely off the mark. Meldrum deserves a great deal of credit for living in Zimbabwe for 23 years and he clearly called it as he saw it in the face of hostility and personal danger. He is a more courageous man than I. But could he have missed the forest of macro-economic factors for the trees of individual atrocity?

Meldrum plays prosecutor, judge, court reporter and star witness in this book, as he builds up a damning case against the president. I thought it was pity that he didn’t put up a witness for the defence on the stand. The verdict would probably have remained the same, but the judicial process would have been fairer.

So allow me to produce a witness on Mugabe’s behalf, one who died 19 years before Mugabe came to power. Frantz Fanon, that far-seeing prophet who documented the bleak colonial past and predicted the bleaker postcolonial future of Africa, had this eerily prescient piece to say in The Wretched of the Earth (reviewed here):

Discourtesy is first and foremost a manner to be used in dealings with the others, with the former colonists who come to observe and to investigate. The ‘ex-native’ too often gets the impression that these reports are already written…the report intends to verify the evidence: everything is going badly out there since we left. Frequently reporters complain of being badly received, of being forced to work under bad conditions, and of being fenced round by indifference or hostility: all this is quite normal. The nationalist leaders know that international opinion is formed solely by the Western Press. Now when a journalist from the West asks us questions, it is seldom in order to help us. In the Algerian War, for example, even the most liberal of the French reporters never ceased to use ambiguous terms in describing our struggle. When we reproached them for this, they replied in all good faith that they were being objective. For the native, objectivity is always directed against him.

 

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