When African leaders nominated Zimbabwe – a country with 2,200 percent inflation, looming famine, and authoritarian tendencies – to chair the UN Commission for Sustainable Development this past week, they may have been sending the world a message.
By giving Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe the yearlong chairmanship, Africa has signaled defiance of the West, which has attemptedto isolate Zimbabwe for alleged human rights abuses and economic mismanagement.
Many African nations have grown increasingly frustrated by the development policies of Western donors that they see as intrusive and harsh. When Australia cancels a cricket tour to Zimbabwe, as it did this week, or when the European Union refuses to hold an EU-Africa summit, as it has for the past six years, because of Mr. Mugabe, many Africans see the pressure as neocolonial habits that must be broken. For many across the continent, Mugabe's muscular land confiscation from white farmers and talk of social justice still have appeal.
"This is African brinkmanship with the West," says Peter Kagwanja, a senior researcher for the Human Sciences Research Council in Tshwane (formerly Pretoria). "Many African nations are still struggling to get over the economic and political legacy of past colonial and racist regimes, and so they are more or less sympathetic with the bold moves taken by Zimbabwe," moves that "they are not capable of doing themselves."
While most African leaders recognize that following Zimbabwe's anti-Western stance would be an act of economic suicide, Mr. Kagwanja says that Africa is throwing its support behind Zimbabwe to show its disinclination to be pushed around by the powerful West. In practice, this means that the nomination of Zimbabwe for the UN agency this year is just the beginning. "All these things that come up, Zimbabwe will be promoted as Africa's choice," he says.
Why Mugabe resonates in Africa
"The resonance behind what Mugabe says is a result of what Africans see as the duplicity of the Western international institutions" such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, says Chris Maroleng, a top Zimbabwe expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane. There is anger over "the imposition of the conditions on aid," he says.
But while he understands the reasons for this gap between Africa and the West, he sees the selection of Zimbabwe to head the UN Commission for Sustainable Development as a mistake. "By hoisting the mantle of a known autocrat and dictator in order to make a statement is regrettable. Certainly there is a need for more African voices on development issues. But I don't think that Mugabe is that poster boy."
For the West, Zimbabwe is a pariah nation. British newspapers regularly refer to Mugabe as "Mad Bob," and Australia said Monday it would spend $15 million backing Mugabe's critics, just a day after banning the cricket tour. But for many in Africa, Mugabe is something of a hero. He's seen as a man who took land away from whites whose ancestors swindled or stole the land from blacks nearly a century ago.
This is not the first time Africa has shown its independence on matters of international import. Over the past decade, African leaders have welcomed Chinese development loans, which, unlike those of the World Bank, don't make aid conditional on economic or political reforms. In its year-long stint on the UN Security Council, South Africa has voted against sanctioning Burma and Zimbabwe for their human rights records and backed Iran's efforts to avoid sanctions because of its uranium-enrichment programs.
At a March 28 conference of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, South African President Thabo Mbeki called for African unity above all.
"The fight against Zimbabwe is a fight against us all. Today it is Zimbabwe; tomorrow it will be South Africa, it will be Mozambique, it will be Angola, it will be any other African country. And any government that is perceived to be strong and to be resistant to imperialists would be made a target and would be undermined. So let us not allow any point of weakness in the solidarity of SADC, because that weakness will also be transferred to the rest of Africa."
At the end of the conference, African leaders threw their unanimous support behind Zimbabwe's Mugabe and called on Mr. Mbeki (not the West) to mediate between Mugabe and the political opposition. Leaders who had been critical of Mugabe before the conference, including Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, fell silent.
South Africa's attempt at "quiet diplomacy" needs time to bear fruit, says Mr. Maroleng. By taking the West out of the negotiation process, Mbeki has disarmed Mugabe of his most resonant arguments for holding on to power.
"It shifted the battleground from the international arena, which Mugabe loves," he adds, "to the domestic issues of economic recovery and constitutional reform and the violent nature that Mugabe engages his opponents. And to a degree this strategy may be working."
This week, Zimbabwe's Minister of Rural Housing and Social Amenities, Emmerson Mnangagwa, revealed that Mbeki has imposed conditions – including the acceptance of Mugabe as president and the renunciation of violence – on the two main opposition leaders, Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, in order for talks to proceed.
No such conditions were imposed on Mugabe, Mr. Mnangagwa told parliament.