Zimbabwe: Power Sharing Tragedy

OPINION – African leaders have been over the moon since Monday, September 15, when the two antagonistic Zimbabwean rivals, President Robert Mugabe of the Zimbabwean African Union, and Morgan Tsvangari of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, signed a power sharing deal in which the former retains his position as president and commander in chief of the armed forces and the latter becomes prime minister with a supervisory role over the police.

"The political crisis in Zimbabwe has been an African challenge, and Africans themselves have resolved it", enthused South African President Thambo Mbeki, who brokered the deal and who apparently was making a veiled reference to criticisms that he in particular should have intervened much earlier so as to nip the crisis in the bud. Not wanting to be left out in the credit for the diplomacy leading to the agreement in Harare, Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe caused Thisday newspaper to carry a front page lead story on Saturday, September 14, 2008, to the effect that the British foreign Secretary, David Milliband, had just called him on the phone to congratulate him on Nigeria’s role in resolving the Zimbabwean problem. 

Not quite. The power sharing deal in Zimbabwe represents Africa ‘s greatest political malaise: sanctification of brigandage and buccaneering and the acceptance of brinkmanship as the basis of governance and leadership. If there is any winner vis a vis the power sharing deal, it is not the people of Zimbabwe , nor is it Tsvangari. There is only one winner, and that is Mugabe. He has been provided a legal, but not legitimate, platform to remain in office as president and commander of the military on the basis of an election he did not win, and had no reason to win. When the parliamentary vote was held in March, it took a whole three months for the electoral commission to announce the result simply because the ruling ZANU asked it not to release it. The reason? Mugabe’s party, in power since 1980, did not do well. When eventually the result was published, ZANU was gracious enough to concede that the opposition won a majority of the seats, still the kind of grace difficult to find among government parties in other African nations.

Apprehensive he was going to be beaten square and fair in the presidential election, Mugabe resorted to every conceivable trick. Violence was unleashed against ZANU members and supporters, including Tsvangari’s deputy who was arrested and charged with treason. The army, which is led by liberation war veterans rather than trained and professional soldiers, announced that the military would NEVER take orders from opposition MDC members. Mugabe himself stated categorically he would never bring himself to hand over power to Tsvangari, no matter the outcome of the presidential vote, accusing him of being a Western surrogate. It was at this point clear to the opposition that further participation in the electoral process was useless, so it pulled out. Mugabe hence conducted a presidential vote in which he was the sole candidate, a situation reminiscent of the charade in the days of the one-party system in Africa during which sitting presidents always won at least 95% of the vote. The wave of democratization in the late 1980s and the early 1990s following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union compelled African rulers to open up the political space a little. Mugabe was one of the rulers forced to embrace the new order. Though he inherited a multi-party system at independence in 1980, he turned Zimbabwe into a one-party system in the name of socialism.

Socialism or Marxism or communism or whatever name it acquired in Africa during the cold war was one of the causes of the region’s underdevelopment. Whether in Benin Republic under Mattew Kerekou or in Ethiopia under Mengistu Haile Mariam or in Tanzania under Julius Nyerere or Zimbabwe under Mugabe, the story is the same: failure all the way. Nyerere was to confess that his nationalization of farms following the Ujama Declaration of 1968 and the adoption of his own African brand of socialism helped ruin his economy. Socialism did not create prosperity in Tanzania but rather equality of poverty, a tragic brand of egalitarianism. Mugabe’s ruination of the Zimbabwean economy in the name of Marxism is particularly painful because he inherited a healthy economy, with its agriculture more developed than that of any other African country. It is a supreme irony that Zimbabwean citizens today form long queues to obtain essential foodstuffs and depend on handouts from foreign donors, a long way from the period when their country used to be the food basket of the Southern African sub-region. Not surprising. After all, some of the most successful Zimbabwean commercial farmers are today economic refugees in Nigeria and other places.

It wasn’t just socialism which messed up Zimbabwe . Mugabe’s manipulation of differences to remain in power at all costs is another critical factor. He played on the people’s anxieties and fears and hopes. To retain the vote of the majority black Africans in a country with a white population which has for decades been in command of the economy, he deftly played up elements of raw nationalism, ethnocentricism and xenophobia. Anytime an election was around the corner, he would embark on a campaign of land distribution, using the liberation war veterans as cannon fodder. It worked for him. But Zimbabwe suffered. Zimbabwe is not the only country where a settler community is in absolute control of the economy. Neighbouring South Africa is another. But thoughtful leaders like Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki know the grave implications of not going about the question of redistribution of wealth and resources in a rather violent manner. International capital is a bloody coward. It goes to only places with the least threat. 

In such Southeast Asian nations as the Philippines , Malaysia , Indonesia and Thailand , the settler Chinese communities which form not more than 4% of the population are in control of the economies overwhelmingly. The political leaders there do not mouth revolutionary rhetoric or violence to address the situation. Mahathir Mohammed adopted the pro-Malay policy of bumiputran to empower the indigenous people and address the imbalance for the long period he was the Malaysian premier. When will most African rulers learn from history?

African rulers have no reason to beat their chests in triumph over the Zimbabwean power sharing agreement. Mugabe should not remain in office. He should have been eased out long ago. The presidency is a sacred office and should never be a reward for gangster politics, as it has just happened in Kenya where Mwai Kibaki who lost the presidential election late last year is still in office and the true winner, Raila Odinga, made to be the premier in the name of compromise and a negotiated settlement. If Africa continues with this immoral kind of governance, the continent will long remain the poster boy of global tragedy. There is a strong correlation between public ethics and development. In the 1970s, the eminent American sociologist, Edward Banfield, published a seminal work entitled "The Moral Basis of the Backward Society" which demonstrates convincingly that societies with low ethical standards are mired in old sorrows of history while those with high moral standards for their leaders make fantastic progress. A more recent book in this area is Francis Fukuyama’s "Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity". You can now begin to see why Nigeria , among other African nations, is making little progress.

Christopher Okigbo, Africa ‘s most verbally exciting poet writing in English, would mock the Zimbabwean power sharing deal as "hurrah for thunder". The deal may have been informed by pragmatism, but it is, at bottom, a low point for public ethics and governance in Africa .