Bonds that blind?

Last Sunday, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was sworn in for a new six-year term, his fifth at the helm of the southern African country. The presidents of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia attended his swearing-in ceremony. But the leaders of sub- Saharan Africa’s two most important countries, South Africa and Nigeria, were conspicuously absent.

Their failure to attend may not have been as ominous as it first appeared, however. South African President Thabo Mbeki has emerged as Mugabe’s major moral supporter and his non-appearance, together with that of his Nigerian counterpart Olusegun Obasanjo, did not necessarily signal the two men’s disapproval of the Zimbabwean election results.

Indeed, both presidents did visit Zimbabwe within a couple of days of Mugabe’s inauguration, and both reiterated their support for the embattled politician.

Mbeki and Obasanjo both endorsed the election results and, even more crucially, they expressed sympathy for the political agenda of Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU- PF). The ZANU-PF power-base is heavily drawn from rural areas, where the party is supporting a controversial land-grab policy in which white-owned commercial farms are confiscated by landless black peasants.

Observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), two politically weighty African organisations of which Zimbabwe is a member, pronounced that the Zimbabwean elections had been free and fair. Mugabe’s triumph, and its acceptance as such by the leaders of neighbouring African countries, was a brutal reminder of the humiliating political retreat of white settler colonialism from Africa.

In many ways, his victory can be considered a turning point in southern African politics. It seems that the declining political role of the region’s white minority might now be accompanied by a similar contraction in the economic arena.

Still, the rest of the continent did not quite let Mugabe off the hook. In a gesture to Zimbabwe’s Western doubters, African leaders urged Mugabe to form a government of national unity.

The West, however, is not in such an accommodating mood. Western powers see Mugabe as the cause of all Zimbabwe’s problems. In the region itself, though, the British failure to stay away from Zimbabwe has raised doubts among many Africans about London’s impartiality. The problem is compounded by the fact that 40,000 British citizens reside in Zimbabwe and that many of the country’s 4,000 white farmers owe allegiance to Britain.

So there is not much love lost between London and Harare. From the perspective of many Africans, Britain is displaying an inexplicable reluctance to embrace a proper debate on the land question in Zimbabwe, and in southern Africa as a whole.

African leaders, therefore, adopted a more conciliatory approach to the Zimbabwean president than their Western counterparts. Malawian President Bakili Muluzi, for example, was the first to drop in for a courtesy call on Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who scooped an impressive 46 per cent of the vote of the Zimbabwean presidential poll.

Muluzi urged Tsvangirai to help “Zimbabweans work together for [a socio-economic] transformation.” Mozambican President Joachim Chissano, who also met Tsvangirai, concurred.

But in sharp contrast to this approach, the United States and the European Union (EU) — especially Britain — derided the election results as farcical. In the wake of last week’s presidential poll results, the Western powers gave the firmest indication yet of possible economic action against Zimbabwe.

For an already-suffering Zimbabwe, sanctions could spell disaster. The Zimbabwean economy is reeling under the strain of the country’s political crisis and, with Mugabe’s win, the steep fall in foreign investment shows little sign of bouncing back.

Under these unfortunate circumstances its hard not to feel an unsettling sense of déjé vu. Mugabe is a master of reinvention, and Zimbabwe has once again emerged as a breeding ground for the defiant African nationalist cause that the West still finds so unpalatable.

At the EU summit in Barcelona on Sunday, European leaders threatened to broaden the sanctions which they imposed against Zimbabwe last month. It seems that a resolution of the Zimbabwean political crisis will not now come easily, especially not with Western interference in Zimbabwe’s domestic affairs.

For the West, the hardest aspect to digest is the unwavering support for Mugabe from democratically-elected African presidents — even in the face of thinly-veiled Western threats and coercion.

Later in the week, Mbeki and Obasanjo met Australian Prime Minister John Howard in London to decide whether Zimbabwe should be suspended from the Commonwealth. The Nigerian and South African leaders have already voiced opposition to Zimbabwe’s suspension from the international organisation, which groups together some 50 former British colonies.

On Tuesday, the Commonwealth troika began the ticklish task of trying to arrive at a common position over whether to suspend Zimbabwe. Once again, the two African leaders prevailed over their Australian counterpart and stressed the need for all parties in Zimbabwe to collaborate more closely for the betterment of the country.

There are growing concerns that the uncompromising US and EU posturing might jeopardise Thabo Mbeki’s plans for African economic recovery. The South African president has lobbied hard at international forums, including the G8 summit meetings of the wealthiest and most powerful industrially-advanced nations, for his New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD).

Mbeki’s plan is nothing short of a blueprint for African economic and political survival. NEPAD stipulates that Western donor nations who pledge to support Africa’s economic recovery measures do so on condition that African governments scrupulously uphold good governance, democracy and human rights.

There are precedents for the current developments, however. The EU declined to endorse last year’s Zambian presidential poll as free and fair and, just as in Zimbabwe’s case, questioned the legitimacy and credibility of the results. No strong measures were taken against Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, however.

Mwanawasa took over from ex- president Frederick Chiluba — another former African leader who has been raked over the coals on human rights violations, corruption and political mismanagement scandals.

Now, 14-member states of Southern African Development Community (SADC) are rallying behind Zimbabwe, just like they did with Zambia before, in a strong show of solidarity.

Europe, however, holds the purse- strings. This is especially so now that Mugabe has threatened to unceremoniously oust the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from Zimbabwe and overturn its policies. The IMF initially prevailed on Mugabe’s government to adopt bold privatisation programmes and to open up of the economy to foreign investment.

In a characteristic act of bridge- burning, Mugabe pledged to scrap the IMF’s structural adjustment programme (SAP), which had led to economic hardship among Zimbabweans. A third of the country’s population now officially eke out a miserable existence below the poverty line. The IMF has, over the past decade, pressurised Zimbabwe to end farm subsidies for African peasants and dismantle the country’s state marketing system.

As far as the IMF is concerned, what is needed in Zimbabwe is a strong private sector, run by whites, to create material wealth. In the IMF’s vision, the public sector is weak, so as to curb the squandering of the country’s wealth on social welfare provision and amenities, both of which invariably benefit blacks.

Political stability is essential to drive any sustained economic recovery in Zimbabwe. Pessimists believe that with Mugabe in the driver’s seat, the odds are hugely stacked against success. But it seems that Mugabe’s African neighbours view developments in a radically different perspective.