SO what that President Mugabe is the new African Union chairman? How many people know whom he replaced in that post? The answer, of course, is that virtually nobody does.

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by Murithi Mutiga

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The AU chairmanship is a purely ceremonial, rotational post that is held by a head of state from one of the continent’s regions every couple of years.

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The position has now attracted so much attention because the new holder is Robert Mugabe, which means the question Thabo Mbeki asked in an important public lecture at the University of South Africa in August 2013 must be repeated.

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Why this obsessive focus on Zimbabwe? Why do all the major television networks devote so much air time to Zimbabwe and Mugabe? Why devote acres of space in (mainly UK and US) newspapers to the subject of little Zimbabwe?

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The answer, of course, is that Mugabe dared to disturb the status quo in his country which heavily favoured a powerful minority which, in the words of Mbeki, were the “kith and kin” of the decision makers in the major capitals of Europe.

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By the time the land redistribution programme began in Zimbabwe, 70 per cent of the productive land in the country was in the hands of the white minority which makes up less than one per cent of the population.

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All the armed struggles for independence in the three countries that saw the bitterest opposition to settler colonialism — Algeria, Zimbabwe and Kenya — were about land.

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CRIPPLING SANCTIONS

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Mugabe, who was jailed for 11 years by Ian Smith’s regime and missed the funeral of his son while locked up, decided to implement land reform from around 2000, against the stern warnings of Tony Blair’s administration.

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He may well have done it for self-serving reasons but the programme made him a hero nonetheless in the eyes of many of his people.

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As Mbeki pointed out in his speech, land redistribution meant that 300,000-400,000 peasants became land owners, a not inconsiderable number in a country of just over 14 million people.

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Mugabe could have been less brutal in carrying out the exercise. But did this attempt to correct historical injustices really merit the crippling sanctions slapped on Zimbabwe?

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Belgium, which has been urging the EU to reconsider the restrictions it has imposed on Zimbabwe (because Brussels has a strong interest in the country’s diamonds, naturally), estimates the embargo costs the country $400 million a year.

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Yet you never see any of this background, that sanctions are a key driver of the poor economic situation in that country, in Western media analyses.

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The most disturbing aspect, according to Mbeki, is the fact that Africans have swallowed unchewed the Western media propaganda on Mugabe “and continue to be enslaved by a narrative about ourselves told by other people”.

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‘GOOD BOYS’

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There are many questions any analyst of the obsessive coverage of Mugabe should ask. Why Mugabe and not, say, the Equatorial Guinea strongman Obiang Nguema who came to power in a coup in 1979 and keeps his people wallowing in poverty despite their country being one of Africa’s largest oil producers?

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Where is the Western media criticism of the DRC’s Joseph Kabila, patron of the world’s richest semi-failed state? The answer, of course, is that the pair and others are good boys who dare not disturb the status quo.

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Mugabe has his flaws. But who doesn’t? In the past week the British press has been awash with stories praising Winston Churchill.

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It is true he was a war-time hero but he was also a terrible racist who dismissed the Mau Mau as “brutish children” who should be crushed in the most savage manner; described Indians as “a beastly people with a beastly religion”; suggested Gandhi should be trampled upon by an elephant with the British viceroy on its back, and described the Palestinians as “barbaric hoards who ate little but camel dung”.

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It was no wonder that the first things President Obama did was to remove the bust of Churchill which had been installed in the Oval Office by George W. Bush.

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But then Obama has read his history and does not swallow whole simple narratives such as those woven by the Western media, in whose eyes Mugabe, — whose slip while walking down the steps last week caused such merriment in some quarters — is one of history’s greatest villains.

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mutiganews@gmail.com – The Nation (Kenya)