Africa looks East for political role models

As Asia becomes a bigger player in Africa, some leaders are copying its vision of 'state' before 'individual.'

When Zimbabwe's most prominent gadfly, Archbishop Pius Ncube, recently compared his country's president to Pol Pot, the Cambodian dictator responsible for some 2 million deaths in the 1970s, it may have been more than just a bit of hyperbole.

It points to the adoption by President Robert Mugabe - and other African leaders - of some Asian models of government, observers say, in which individual rights are often subverted for the good of the masses, or the regime.

Take Zimbabwe's ongoing demolition of thousands of urban homes and shops. It has left homeless up to 1.5 million, mostly city dwellers, and forced many to seek rural refuge. It echoes, some observers say, China's government-led 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when urbanized elites were stripped of status and forced to learn peasant ideals while laboring on farms.

And Zimbabwe may not be alone. In Sudan, for instance, government-abetted atrocities in Darfur, where 180,000 have been killed, can also be seen through the lens of regime survival trumping individual rights.

Indeed, as Asian economic power on the continent grows - and as African leaders increasingly turn to Asia as a helpful model for fighting poverty - they may also be taking their cues from certain Asian governments' treatment of their citizens.

Yet this comes at an awkward time, given the focus on improving Africa - and its governance - at this week's G-8 summit in Scotland.

In Africa, "We may be seeing ... an attempt to replicate some models from the east" including "the Tiananmen model or the Pol Pot model," says Chris Maroleng of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, referring to China's violent 1989 crackdown on student democracy protesters in the name of national stability.

In Zimbabwe in recent weeks, this Asian paradigm may have spurred "operation murambatsvina," or "drive out trash," in which thousands of homes and shops have been destroyed, and many of the homeless herded into crowded "transit camps." Most of the destruction has occurred in urban areas - strongholds of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

A United Nations envoy is in Zimbabwe assessing the situation. She hasn't commented extensively but did reportedly extend her stay to Friday to allow for further investigation. The African Union hasn't condemned the operation; a spokesman reportedly said the "internal" matter didn't merit AU action, but the group has sent an official to Zimbabwe to survey the damage.

But others have spoken out, including Archbishop Ncube, who told the BBC that life in Zimbabwe now is "much like under Pol Pot" and that "this will lead to many people starving to death."

Behind the headlines, Mr. Maroleng sees a "clash" of two ideologies. It's the West, "steeped in democracy and good governance," versus the East, which sees domestic discontent as a purely internal matter and "places regime security above human security." He also sees this dynamic in Mozambique, Angola, and Sudan.

Yet the advent of Asian values isn't new, argues Peter Kagwanja of Crisis Group in Pretoria. Mugabe's ruling party has long been anchored in "the Beijing consensus," which "elevates peasantry as the pivot of social transformation" and holds "urban people as irrelevant." Mugabe has built his power base on peasants - "people who will not go on strike and who don't have electricity - whose demands on Mugabe are minimal," he adds. Thus, he doesn't fear a backlash from urban MDC backers.

There's also a third set of values in play: African ones. In Western nations, governments generally focus on benefiting citizens - building roads and protecting minorities, for example.

But in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa, says Kagwanja, the state is "a heavy stick wielded by the dominant force to whip others into place." This is an extension of traditional tribal rivalries and a focus on groups, rather than individuals, as the dominant unit of society, he says.

The Asian and African values may contribute to Africa's ambivalence on Zimbabwe.

"The African Union, to most of us, is a useless, toothless thing," says Pius Wakatama, a columnist with Zimbabwe's weekly Standard newspaper.

But some say that Western forces of globalization, democracy, and G-8 pressure are, in fact, pushing African governments toward uplifting their citizens. Despite the example of Mugabe, says Paul Themba Nyathi of the MDC, "African states are beginning to realize the only way they're going to be taken seriously" in the world or with their citizens, "is when the state is at the service of the people, and not at the service of the rulers."

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