Why Mugabe attracts Africans and repels the West
As Africa applauds its oldest ruling freedom fighter, Zimbabwe teeters on economic ruin.
PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA
WESTERN dignitaries attending festivities to mark a decade of South Africa's democracy on April 27, 2004, were struck mute by the deafening applause that greeted Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe.Skip to next paragraph
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"I cannot figure out why he is being applauded when he has destroyed his country," protested Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign minister and president of the Western think tank, the International Crisis Group.
Mr. Mugabe remains both an enigma and a magnet, attracting Africans and repelling the West. He is at the center of a seven-year-old game of brinkmanship between Africa and the West, fostered by diametrically opposed responses to Zimbabwe's seizure of land owned by some 4,500 white farmers in 2000. Since then, the two sides have looked each other in the eye to see who would blink first.
This face-off hovered over the summit of Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders last month in Lusaka, Zambia, and now haunts the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Uganda this November and the upcoming Euro-Africa summit in Portugal in December.
Mugabe's fall from grace in the eyes of the West is a relatively recent phenomenon in his 27 years in power. Now portrayed as the archetypal bare-fisted dictator, he was hailed by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as "a man I can do business with." And in 1994, Queen Elizabeth bestowed on him an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath.
What inflamed relations with Britain was the injudicious denial by Tony Blair's Laborites in 1997 of Britain's colonial responsibility for land reform. Clare Short, Britain's secretary of state for international development, wrote to Zimbabwe's minister of agriculture and land: "We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish and, as you know, we were colonized not colonizers."
After Britain reneged on its pledge to fund land reform, citing cronyism, Mugabe went ahead with his own land redistribution plans, which pushed Zimbabwe's predominantly agrarian economy down the cliff: 80 percent unemployment, nearly empty government coffers, collapsed services, and an annual inflation rate of 18,000 percent.
In less than seven years, Zimbabwe has witnessed the fastest peace-time economic dip in history since Weimer Germany – plunging one of Africa's strongest economic and regional breadbaskets into a crisis with 4 million people reportedly starving and in need of food aid.
Mugabe may have lost the economic war, but he has won every political battle with the West. As the oldest freedom fighter still in office, he has always drawn the biggest applause in African meetings, including the recent SADC summit. The Africa-West standoff has emboldened him and turned him into a symbol of African resistance, a liberation hero.
Even though foreign humanitarian aid has flowed steadily to the poor in Zimbabwe, the West's asset freezes and travel bans on Mugabe and a hundred of his associates and spouses are seen in some quarters as "racial" retribution for his seizing of white farms and handing them over to black Zimbabweans. But invoking a moral mission, the West insists that its "smart" sanctions have targeted elements of the ruling elite "engaged in actions or policies to undermine Zimbabwe's democratic processes or institutions."
In the aftermath of the Iraq invasion in 2003, Mugabe upped the ante, whipping nationalism to a fever pitch: "Our cause is Africa's cause," he told the fervently pro-Zimbabwe publication, New Africa, in May. This has given wing to intense militarization of polity in the government ahead of the 2008 elections to forestall a Western-sponsored "regime change."