Mugging Mugabe

by Stephen Gowans

February 11, 2002


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Zimbabwe's Hitler Wages War Of Land, screamed the headline in The Globe and Mail (Toronto) of April 8, 2000.

It's hard to imagine that the man in question, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's president since 1980, could be called worse.

"Hitler" is reserved for the most vile leaders.

Dictator, strongman, authoritarian, warlord, thug. These would all be hurled Mugabe's way, not quite as strong as "Hitler," but the implication is the same. Mugabe is to be feared and hated. Someone whose ouster we can all applaud.

The same epithets have been hurled at others, most recently former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and Belarus's president Alexander Lukashenko. Scratch the surface of the sensational language, and you find that all the targets of this name calling have defied the West in some way -- refusing to become part of NATO, insisting on a measure of economic independence, snubbing the IMF, showing an unhealthy nostalgia for socialism, or in Mugabe's case, taking steps to resolve the long-festering issue of land reform.

Still, the defiance -- or its reasons -- never seems to get much of an airing. Instead, we hear about human rights abuses, murder, deportation, election fraud; some of it real, some of it exaggerated, much of it fictitious.

We've heard the stories about Milosevic. The war crimes charges, the alleged murder of one-hundred thousand Kosovar Albanians, later revised to 10,000, and then a politically-motivated indictment for the murder of 800, a far cry from the 100,000 that earned Milosevic the name Europe's latest Hitler, a lie pressed into service to justify an illegal bombing campaign. Today, Camp Bondsteel sits in the heart of a Kosovo cleansed of much of its Serb, Roma and Jewish populations, another US military base in a rapidly expanding empire of US bases on foreign soil. Humanitarian intervention? Or military intervention in pursuit of an expanded empire?

We've heard, too, of the Racak massacre, the killing, it is said, of dozens of ethnic Albanians by Serb police, an incident used to build support for the "humanitarian" murder of thousands of Serb civilians. There is good reason, say forensic pathologists, to believe the Racak massacre was a fake, a hoax perpetrated by Washington and its KLA proxies. The press says little of this.

Milosevic's trial at the Hague is about to get underway, his prosecution ordered, organized, paid for and carried out by the very forces that machinated with Croatian fascists, Bosnian Islamists, and al Qaeda connected terrorists to tear Yugoslavia apart, and then spent 78 days bombing what was left of the federation in defiance of international law and with brazen disregard for the customs of war and Yugoslav civilians. In an example of stunning hypocrisy, one of the charges the US-controlled Tribunal has indicted Milosevic on is failure to comply with the Geneva Conventions, rules of conduct Washington now says are outdated and that it is under no obligation itself to follow at its torture chamber, Camp X-Ray.

As for Lukashenko, his crime has been to be show too much interest in aligning his country with Russia, and not the ever-expanding NATO, which, in pushing up against Russia's borders and increasingly encircling the country, subserves Washington's designs of containing a potential regional threat to US primacy. Alexander Haig, former Secretary of State and once Commander of NATO forces in Europe, let the cat out the bag in an interview with UPI (January 7, 2002). "If you make the case for Russia in NATO," says Haig, "then there would be no reason for NATO."

Lukashenko has also evinced too little interest in putting state-owned assets on the block to be snapped up by Western investors looking to make a quick profit. The Belarusian president must go, it has been said, in the same corridors of power in which the same words have been thundered about Milosevic and Mugabe.

So, what exactly did Mugabe do to be reviled as Africa's Hitler?

Embarked on wars of conquest, insisting on his country's primacy over all others? Nope. That's the sole province of George W. Bush, who has been jackbooting around central Asia, setting up military bases far and wide, rattling his sword, and no longer even making the effort to seem as if the United States intends to respect the rule of law. Geneva Conventions? The UN Charter? What are they against the authority of the imperial Presidency?

Of course, in a world not so polluted by the thick smog of self-serving propaganda, it would be immediately clear that if anyone is deserving of the epithet 'Hitler' it is Bush, as too a fair number of his predecessors, not Milosevic, not Lukashenko and not Mugabe. The charge sheet against Bush reads: fostering a chauvinistic, violent patriotism, a readiness to eclipse civil liberties, concentration of power in the executive office, a robust expansionism, a brand of official racism aimed at Muslims, disregard for international law, and a muscular militarism.

Still, so impenetrable is the fog that billows forth from the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, to be concentrated into an even denser soup in the nation's newsrooms, that it remains impermeable even to those you would think would have some chance of piercing it -- the US left. But the US left, or the larger part of it, reacts with high dudgeon at even the hint their president is worthy of the hated name. Dumb? Yes. Corrupt? Certainly. Cold? Inarguably. Subservient to powerful corporate, and especially oil, interests? Without a doubt. But a Hitler? Never. As to Milosevic, Lukashenko and Mugabe: Why, of course, they're Hitlers.

Mugabe's transformation from unremarked and anonymous leader, to personification of evil, began in 1997. And it all was traceable to an issue that has plagued Zimbabwe from even before it achieved independence in 1980 -- the land question.

Before 1980 Zimbabwe was a white-supremacist British colony that went by the name of Rhodesia, after the British financier Cecil Rhodes, whose company, the British South Africa Company, stole the land from the indigenous Matabele and Mashona people in the 1890s. British soldiers, who laid claim to the land by force of arms on behalf of Rhodes, were each rewarded with nine square miles of land. The Matabele and Mashona -- those who weren't killed defending their land-- were rewarded with dispossession, grinding poverty, misery and subjugation. Today, in a country of 13 million, almost 70 percent of the country's arable agricultural land is owned by an elite of some 4,500 mostly white farmers, many descendant from the British soldiers who Rhodes blessed with a claim to stolen land, to pass down the generations.

After a long campaign for national liberation, independence talks were held in 1979. Talks almost broke down over the land question, but Washington and London, eager for a settlement, agreed to ante up and arrange for financial support for a comprehensive land reform program. If you were going to return land to the peasants who had been working it -- the rightful owners -- you'd have to compensate the white landholders. But the assistance, and therefore, a workable land resettlement plan, was never forthcoming.

That was a problem, because the land issue was largely what drove the struggle for national liberation, and has remained at the heart of Zimbabwean politics since. Unresolved, it festered.

As George Shire, an academic working for the Open University and a Zimbabwe liberation war veteran, puts it in The Guardian (January 24, 2002) -- his grandfather Mhepo Mavakire used to farm land in Zimbabwe, before it was handed to a white man after the second world war, a reward for having fought for king and country -- "the unequal distribution of land in Zimbabwe was one of the major factors that inspired the rural-based liberation war against white rule and has been a source of continual popular agitation ever since."

"The government," says Shire, has "struggled to find a consensual way to transfer land," but with inadequate funds, insufficient assistance from London, and the country rocked by IMF structural adjustment programs, land reform made little headway. The sore continued to suppurate.

Frustrated, and under pressure from war veterans who had grown tired of waiting for the land reform they'd fought for, Mugabe embarked on a course that would lead him headlong into collision with the IMF and Western governments. He passed legislation enabling the government to seize nearly 1,500 farms owned by white Zimbabweans, without compensation. As Zimbabwe's Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr. I.S.G Mudenge put it, at that point "all hell broke loose." Having held free and fair elections on time, and having won them, Mugabe now became international goat and pariah, on the wrong side of London, Washington and international lending institutions. A dictator, a stealer of elections, a thug. That was to be his new guise.

"Perhaps it would be naïve to expect any other reaction, considering the influential interests affected by the decision to empower the Black people of Zimbabwe," recalled Mudenge. True. But to expect much of the left abroad to abandon Mugabe was quite another matter.

The first thing the EU did was commission a study. The study concluded that Mugabe would have to go, forced out by civil society, the union movement or NGO's, uprisings in the street, maybe even a military coup. "By hook or by crook, but mostly by crook," Mugabe would be ousted.

On 24 January, 1999, a meeting was convened at the Royal Institute of International Affairs to discuss the report. The theme of the meeting, led by The Economist's Richard Dowden, was "Zimbabwe - Time for Mugabe to Go?" Mugabe's "confiscating" of white-held land compelled an unequivocal answer to the conference's rhetorical question: Yes. Dowden presented four options:

1) a military coup;

2) buying the opposition;

3) insurrection; and

4) subverting Mugabe's ZANU-PF party.

On March 23 of that year, Washington weighed in. The US State Department held a seminar to discuss a strategy for dealing with the "Zimbabwe crisis." Civil society and the opposition would be strengthened to foment discontent and dissent. The opposition would be brought together under a single banner to enhance its chances of success at the polls and funding would be funnelled to the opposition through Western backed NGO's. Dissident groups could be strengthened and encouraged to take to the streets. The same plan was to work later in Belgrade (naïvely celebrated today by a large part of the US left as a model of grassroots, non-violent, change from below.) It could work in Harare.

That the program's raison d'etre was to pave the way for a comprador leader should have occurred to the US left. With a few exceptions, it didn't. Instead, the progressive community lined up with Whitehall and the White House. The NGO's and civil society Western governments were pitchforking cash and other goodies too, were lionized on prominent left-wing Web sites while the left, otherwise implacably opposed to neo-liberalism, was tooting the horn of the opposition in Yugoslavia, and making sympathetic noises about the Movement for Democratic change in Zimbabwe, both of which advocated decidedly neo-liberal programs. Meanwhile, Milosevic's Socialist party, Lukashenko in Belarus, and Mugabe's ZANU-PF were presenting social democratic platforms, presumably more in keeping with the US left's affinities, but the left was echoing the State Department line: these guys are violent thugs, dictators, and murderers.

In the case of Yugoslavia and Belarus, opposition leaders were told to put their differences aside and unite under a single banner. Washington would bankroll their campaigns, and fund NGOs and civil society to put pressure on the government. In Zimbabwe, the electoral opposition coalesced under the banner, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Of course, none of these opposition groups had any special claim to being democratic, but the appropriation of the democratic cache was intended to make it seem that the government was authoritarian and antidemocratic, a case of the pot calling the kettle black. The Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), bankrolled by Washington, seized the reins of power in a coup. Still, it calls itself democratic (and curiously, refers to itself, even to this day, as the opposition).

The MDC, backed by London, proposes to take decision-making authority out of the hands of Zimbabweans and surrender it entirely to the World Bank and IMF, hardly a move that would enhance democracy in any normal use of the word. Also backed by the commercial farmer's union -- the white landholders -- and members of the old Rhodesia Front, and unwilling to be drawn out on land reform, it's unlikely the MDC's democracy will extend much beyond safeguarding the interests of the white land-holding elite, and Whitehall, its de facto master. Still, to many in the West, it must be democratic -- after all, the opposition calls itself democratic -- and at the very least, it must be preferable to a man branded a thug, dictator, and Hitler.

Predictably, the Western press, long a stenographer for official Washington and London, has done its part, launching a program of vilification to match the demonization of Milosevic and Lukashenko.

Both men, elected to their posts, are called dictators. So too is Mugabe. Bush, who rose to the presidency on the back of his daddy's connections and money, and under dubious circumstances, carries on an open-ended war free from the restraining hand of the other branches of government, to say nothing of the American people. So much for checks and balances. Celebrated as Commander in Chief, America's version of Il Duce muses openly about how much easier it would be were he dictator. That he is largely a dictator seems to have escaped the notice of half the propaganda-addled American people. The other half, whose patriotism owes more to qualities elevated to virtues by Albert Speer than anything America's founding fathers ever revered, would have it no other way. Meanwhile, elected foreign leaders who defy the dictator on the Potomac are called autocrats.

Mugabe, et al. are accused of buying elections and intimidating the opposition, while voters are threatened by the West with sanctions and economic dislocation if they make the wrong choice at the polls.

Election observers representing the same governments on record as deciding the defiant leader must go, declare confidently that the only way the opposition can be kept from victory at the polls is if the government resorts to fraud, the observers, magically, having divined the outcome of a "free and fair" vote weeks before voters go the polls. Victory by the governing party is immediately denounced as a fraud.

And while the government is accused of abusing its control of the state media, antigovernment media, funded by Western governments and NGO's, flourish. They did in Yugoslavia, and do today in Belarus, where they are allowed to operate freely, some even openly advocating insurrection. Foreign-controlled media inciting uprisings in the streets wouldn't be tolerated for a second in John Ashcroft's America. But they are expected to be tolerated by defiant leaders elsewhere, judged against a higher standard than America's leaders ever are, or are ever expect to be.

Under these circumstances the reviled leader is caught between a precipice and pack of dogs. Allow the massive interference of Western governments to go unchecked, and forfeit the only chance of a free and fair election. Take steps to limit the interference and give your opponents ammunition to step up the charges that you're authoritarian and antidemocractic.

After Chile's elected socialist president Salvadore Allende was ousted by a CIA-engineered coup in 1973, many people dismissed the idea of radical change being achievable at the ballot box as naive. Any movement that had a chance of electoral success would be undermined. Those that managed against almost insuperable odds to form a government, would, like Allende's, be toppled. Washington might hypocritically counsel others to renounce violence as a means of political change, but its readiness to rely on violence on a massive scale to put down undesired political change, even that achieved peacefully, knew no bounds. Nor have limits been discovered since.

Political scientist Ralph Miliband argued that radical change at the ballot box shouldn't, however, be given up on so easily. Sure, any elected government that challenged America's military, political and economic hegemony, or seriously challenged the privileges and wealth of domestic economic elites, would face an implacable hostility. But it was up to the left and progressive communities around the world to provide a counterbalance. They would have to defend governments singled out for attack.

Yet, defiant governments that have challenged US expansionism and insisted on a measure of economic independence have been shunned by the much of the left, which has proved to be just as credulous, indeed, perhaps even more so, than the politically apathetic mainstream. While claiming to be suspicious of official Washington and London, it has, for the most part, been uncritically accepting of campaigns that seek to vilify defiant governments. And the upshot for progressive governments has been grim.

Governments that seek to right historical injustices or to challenge the devastating impact of neoliberalism, the IMF and the World Bank, are left isolated, and more easily brought down in favour of compliant comprador regimes whose interests line up with the West's, its neo-liberal economic colonialism, and its military expansionism.

For Milosevic, languishing in a UN prison, for Lukashenko, whose grip on power is tenuous, and for Mugabe, who may soon be forced from office, the fight has hardly been fair. No match for Western governments and their armamentaria of sanctions, military and economic threats, and the West's ability to buy domestic politicians, NGOs and civil society, they have been abandoned, and left to fight alone. The prospects for their countries, denied support, are hardly sanguine. The prospects for the left worldwide, for the same reason, are no less gloomy.

The Western press says that Mugabe will try to cling to power by hook or by crook. The truth of the matter is that Western governments plan to drive him, and any other leader who puts the interests of the domestic population above that of Western governments, corporations and financial institutions, from power. And they're doing it, by hook or by crook!



       Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stephen Gowans 2002. All rights reserved.

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Published February 11, 2002
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