Yet Mugabe’s great ally, Angola’s Eduardo dos Santos, whose ruling MPLA is going into a parliamentary election today, has an equally appalling record of autocratic rule. But Angola’s fabulous oil wealth has silenced western criticisms of the regime’s terrible human rights abuses.
The last time Angola held elections was 16 years ago. Dos Santos came to power in 1979, a year before Mugabe took power in Zimbabwe. Angola’s economy has logged economic growths well into double digit figures on the back of oil, yet a small well-connected political and business elite, centred around the Dos Santos family, mostly benefits, while the majority of the country’s population lives on far less then $2 a day. Fernando Macedo, the head of Angola’s main human rights group, the Association for Justice, Peace and Democracy, says "people talk about blood diamonds, but oil from Angola could be called blood oil".
It is now clear that oil wealth protects African dictators from international pressure to democratise. Western hypocrisy was evident in the fact that early in Zimbabwe’s meltdown, western governments and media criticisms of Mugabe focused mainly on the plight of the large white expatriate community there. Yet, the problem in Zimbabwe has never been solely about blacks attacking whites, but about a despicable regime terrorising its population – both black and white. Immediately after the country’s April 2008 elections, which the opposition Movement for Democratic Change won, Angola put its troops at the ready to aid Mugabe. Angola allowed the Chinese ship, An Yue Jiang, and its consignment of deadly weapons bought by Mugabe to bolster his military and police in the event of uprisings following his rigging of the elections, to dock in Angolan ports, after it was forced to turn back from South Africa following the most unprecedented continent-wide civil society solidarity against the ship offloading its deadly cargo in African ports. African regimes with lots of oil can buy off western criticisms. Nigeria, another major African oil producer, is another misruled country that often escapes western censure.
To put it politely, western powers were lukewarm in their criticisms of Nigeria’s openly rigged elections in 2007. Omar al-Bashir came to power in Sudan in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989, overthrowing a government elected democratically. Western criticisms of him do arise, but they seem too little, too late. Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema also took power in a coup in 1979, and has scheduled fake elections in which he regularly captures 99.8% of the vote. He is living a charmed life. Libya’s Muammar Gadafy who came to power in 1977 in a coup, is now warmly embraced by the European Union, Britain and the US.
If not oil, African dictators aligning themselves with the US "war on terror" also escape censure, even if they batter critics at home. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi are cases in point. Swaziland, one of Africa’s most notoriously badly run countries, regularly accuses perfectly legitimate critics of "terrorism" before carting them off to jail. Swaziland also escapes scrutiny because its absolute monarch, King Mswati, claims to run the country along pre-colonial "traditional" lines, called the Tinkundla system. But this is nothing but tyranny, ostensibly in the name of "tradition" and "culture". Yet, it appears, the some western powers find the Swazi Tinkundla system very exotic, even if it’s out-and-out despotic. Unless the west tackles these obvious blindspots, their criticisms of African misrule, although desperately needed, will ring hollow.
WM Gumede is a senior associate and Oppenheimer fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford.