Africa Put to the Test (Updated)

Democracy doesn’t begin at the ballot box. However high the voter turnout and however accurate the vote count, it doesn’t mean a thing if the processes leading up to the formal vote are profoundly undemocratic.

IMO that was the situation in the elections in Iraq, in which the political parties were actually armed gangs, ensuring their place on the ballot by force of arms. That’s the situation in Iran, where candidates stay on the ballot only by permission of the ruling mullahs. And that was the situation in Zimbabwe’s recent run-off election, in the leadup to which supporters of Robert Mugabe systematically murdered and brutalized members of the opposition and their families.

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA; and HARARE, ZIMBABWE – President Robert Mugabe has long been able to count on African leaders to sympathize with his goals of ridding Zimbabwe of the vestiges of white colonial rule.

But with his brutal tactics in what’s widely seen as a sham runoff presidential election Friday, Mr. Mugabe may have squandered his last shred of credibility even in Africa.

Monday, at a meeting of African leaders in Egypt, Mugabe faces a critical personal test. Will the African Union join the international community in pushing for new sanctions, even military intervention, in Zimbabwe?

“We are saying we want the African Union to send troops to Zimbabwe,” Kenya’s Prime Minster Raila Odinga said on Saturday. “The time has come for the African continent to stand firm in unity to end dictatorship.”

U. S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called for action by the international community:

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the US and Britain would present a resolution to the UN Security Council calling for tougher action against Mugabe and his supporters. “Its time for the international community to act,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine that anybody could fail to act given what we’re all watching on the ground in Zimbabwe.”

Whether I agree with that or not depends on what is meant by “international community”. If it means the United States and the United Kingdom, I’m against it. There’s no way we can escape charges of colonialism and the U. S., at least, has plenty on its plate already. The same holds true to a lesser extent for the United Nations. Should the UN intervene in Zimbabwe the charge that the UN is simply under the sway of the colonial powers is inevitable.

It’s time for the countries of Africa, particularly the countries in sub-Saharan Africa, to step up to the plate. They are not uninterested third parties. Zimbabwe’s supine economy and collapsed agricultural system have raised costs, particularly food costs, in all of Zimbabwe’s neighbors to whom Zimbabwe used to be a primary exporter of grain. What happens in Zimbabwe affects them all.

More than a century ago an economist noted that a key difference between the rich and poor is differing consequences for misbehavior. If a rich or even moderaly well-off man goes on a bender for a week, he’s likely to recover without serious repercussions. If a poor man does the same thing it may be a tragedy from which he and his family never recover.

Much the same thing is as true of nations as it is for individuals and for the last few decades Zimbabwe has been on a bender which southern Africa can ill afford. The nations of southern Africa in their own self-interest need to deal with the problems that Zimbabwe presents and we need to let them.


I wish I could agree with Ed Morrissey’s take on the agenda of the African Union:

The problems in Africa — famines, pestilence, revolution — all come from the root political failures of African governments. Aid to these nations help perpetuate the failed political structures like those of not just Mugabe but across the entire continent. Unless we have vital national security interests at stake, we should adopt a hands-off policy towards Africa and aid until such time as they adopt responsible governments. The cessation of fawning over dictators like Mugabe would be one sign of that development.

If there are lessons we should learned over the last seven years it’s that poverty, misery, and ignorance breed hatred and, unless we intend to bottle ourselves up behind guarded walls, hatred will follow us right to our own city streets. If Africa fails to deal with Africa’s problems, we’ll need to find another way. But we should dismiss the claim that all of Africa’s problems are due to colonialism as claptrap.

Blake Hounshell, the blogger formerly known as praktike, points out an article in the Washington Post and comments:

The Post’s Ellen Knickmeyer, I think, gets it right when she attributes the silence to the fact that a lot of the other folks in the room have also stolen power and maintained it by force. I mean, what could they say? Steal the election more artfully? Mugabe pretty much said the same last week at a campaign rally: “I want to see that finger pointed at me and I will check if that finger is clean or dirty.” I wonder, though, if the tone would be different were the summit held in a democratic African country, as opposed to Mubarak’s Egypt. Nobody wants to insult the host.

Another lesson I hope we’ve learned in the last few years is that we’re not going to march, like Napoleon, at the head of a revolutionary army to abolish lousy autocratic governments in the developing world. We can’t turn our faces from them, we can’t tolerate them, and we can’t overthrow them. We should find another way.

3 comments… add one
  • I suspect you’ve got it backwards: hatred breeds poverty, misery, and ignorance.

  • Chicken and the egg. So many of the Al Qaeda leaders are not drawn from the poor and downtrodden but from those with a sense of entitlement. However, the entitled are able to find willing followers and places to hide among people who are poor and miserable by promising something better. They deliver the opposite.

    That’s the genuinely remarkable thing about the conflict we’re involved in. Al Qaeda has never delivered anything but bloodshed and increased misery whereas we’ve delivered greater prosperity practically every place we’ve been.

    They’re fighting a losing rear guard action, Jeff, and our best grand strategy is to spread our system more, not less. However, I think we need to use more pull and less push.

  • You’re last point was emphasized by this recommendation of Mugabe:

    “He was elected, he took an oath, and he is here with us, so he is President and we cannot ask him more,” said Omar Bongo, President of Gabon since 1967. “He conducted elections and I think he won.”

    President since 1967! I wonder how many similar elections he won.

Leave a Comment