Inconvenient Truths in Africa

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Winston Churchill said that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

The voter remembers the last thing they were told, the biggest lie or the most potent threat. They do not see policy from a macro-political perspective. What’s in it for me is the dominant question.

And so it was that western commentators and diplomats could scarcely believe the result in last month’s harmonised elections in Zimbabwe. In the days after President Robert Mugabe’s stunning victory, the incredulity was broadcast all over the world.

The rhetoric followed a consistent line. How could an 89-year old tyrant who had presided over the virtual destruction of his country be re-elected with 61 per cent of the vote, while his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai, the West’s champion of democracy, polled only 34 per cent? How could Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party have won a two-thirds majority in parliament without the “massive rigging” that Tsvangirai and his supporters had alleged?  

Having visited Zimbabwe in April, I came away convinced that Mugabe would win the election. This is not to appear half-smart, independent polling had also indicated that Mugabe would win a majority, despite an uncommitted vote of up to 40 per cent.

In many conversations, I registered a weariness with Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change. Despite having a majority in parliament and controlling most of the councils in the urban centres, the MDC had achieved very little. After the disputed 2008 elections, the MDC had gone into a government of national unity with Zanu-PF with Tsvangirai serving as Prime Minister and his colleagues as ministers in key portfolios, such as finance.

Tsvangirai seemed to enjoy the trappings of power having spent years on the outside looking in. He moved into a splendiferous house and began tooling around town in a big Mercedes. In 2009, his wife Susan was tragically killed in a car accident but the sympathy for him dissipated as he embarked on a chaotic and almost random series of romantic entanglements. His louche behaviour was not unusual amongst  Zimbabwean men but it gave his opponents ammunition to fire at him through willing fusiliers in the state-owned media. It spoke of ill-discipline just when steely focus and purpose was required. In government, Tsvangirai became obsessed with reform in the state security sector, dislodging the police and army chiefs who he saw as instrumental to Mugabe’s continued grip on power. (That wasn’t surprising considering the beatings he received at the hands of partisan police.)  

This proved to be a major miscalculation. What he should have  been  doing was focussing on the electoral system, including getting the electoral rolls inspected and updated. If there was massive fraud in the election it was carried out through the rolls with dead people voting and people registered in districts where they did not reside.  

Embarrassingly, to date there has not been hard evidence of Tsvangirai’s claims produced. That’s not to say there wasn’t rigging but the MDC needed to prove it and hasn’t. Tsvangirai made a court challenge based on an affidavit that he refused to sign, which appears to have mirrored word for word statements made by the British Ambassador to Zimbabwe Deborah Bronnert

On August 4, Bronnert went on Sky News and declared that Britain had “serious issues” about the conduct of the July 31 elections, including the high number of assisted voters.

“One example is where 17,000 people voted but 10,000 of those were assisted, that means somebody else went in with them into the voting booth raising some big questions around the secrecy and security of the vote,” Ambassador Bronnert said.

Tsvangirai put the same allegation in his affidavit but tellingly refused to sign up to it. Even more tellingly, neither Bronnert nor Tsvangirai could name the constituency where this outrageous fraud took place.

As this embarrassing incident gathered pace in Harare, Tsvangirai withdrew his petition, ending any chance of forcing a re-run of the polls.     

I can’t be certain about the extent of alleged frauds, but I am sure the opinion polls that had Mugabe leading prior were accurate and above reproach.

Bronnert and other ambassadors gather their opinions from diplomatic cocktail parties in the main. They rarely go into the field and speak to real people. MDC operatives give them the comments they want to hear as continued party funding is on the line. But even the most enthusiastic MDC boosters at embassy soirees were saying that Mugabe would win. MDC diplomats I spoke to were saying that but somehow the message didn’t sink in.

Zanu-PF out campaigned MDC all over the country, that is clear. They went out to rural areas and effectively apologized for forgetting about the contribution of village people during the liberation  struggle of the 1970s. They promised land to non-combatants who had acted as messengers during the struggle. They re-engaged with the people, sought out young people to register and politicised them relentlessly. Where in the past they had used a stick this time it was the carrot.    

They set up a network of unofficial village policemen who were in effect political commissars. Their mission was to ensure that the polls were peaceful but also to reinforce the message that despite the terrible privations that Zimbabweans had suffered in recent times, they still owed their freedom and independence to Mugabe’s revolutionary party.

People who had been awarded land after the violent invasions of white-owned farms from 2000 had a reason for voting for Mugabe. While catastrophic to the economy, the number of indigenous folk earning a living on these farms has risen from about 350 000 to 1 million since the invasions, according to the British authors of the controversial book Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land. This message has been rammed home in the rural areas and appears to have struck a chord.

The party also installed younger candidates with local followings, rather than the party hacks of old.

Many people who voted for Mugabe were no lovers of the autocratic old sidewinder but he was the devil they knew. There was a sense that the MDC, riven with factionalism and self-interest, could not deliver on its promise of change.

That peace has reigned over Zimbabwe since the elections is profoundly puzzling to foreign diplomats and observers who predicted ordinary folk would take to the streets in protest, and even actively encouraged it in some cases. They misjudged the mood, people were sick of politics. The government of national unity provided 4 years of relative stability and civil harmony. The economy, aided by the introduction of the US dollar, has steadily recovered, albeit from a tiny base. A change of government was considered a possible threat to that. Moreover, Zanu-PF might have been more dangerous in opposition, considering that most senior military figures are steeped in the party.

Mugabe’s win has been profoundly inconvenient to the West which has designs on the huge mineral wealth of the country. The insistence that all foreign firms cede 51 per cent of shares to indigenous Zimbabweans is distasteful to big mining companies who have never been fond of sharing their Third World plunder.

In African politics, you have to play the long game. As the old Zanu-PF cadres die off they are being replaced with young technocrats who are returning from overseas.

But while Mugabe remains as the figurehead it will be difficult for foreigners to accept that things are changing. 

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6 thoughts on “Inconvenient Truths in Africa

  1. My first visit to Zimbabwe was back in the days when it was still Rhodesia. One Sunday, I attended the Salisbury Presbyterian Church and happened to sit next to Ian Smith, the colony’s white Prime Minister. He told me that little had been done to train black Rhodesians for leadership and that one day the nation would pay heavily for that, Very prophetic words

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