Do Africa's leaders really want to make excuses for Robert Mugabe?

Those who back Mugabe may be acting out of a desire to defend a son of Africa, but I fear they also act out of habit
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The Independent Online

So Robert Mugabe has finally come clean. Addressing his party members this week he admitted that his "land reform" programme had been tarnished by greed. "These are things we must correct," the Zimbabwean President declared. What he didn't address is precisely what he would correct and how. Those possessing only a passing familiarity with the affairs of that sad country will know that Zimbabwe's land seizures were run from the President's office. They will also know that the prime beneficiaries were Mr Mugabe's cronies. For years now the best land has gone to relatives, army officers and party hacks.

Therefore let me apologise for the misleading opening line. Robert Mugabe has not come clean. He is just spinning, wanting to give the impression that the misery is not his doing and that he will soon put things right. There are shades of Stalin and Mao in all of this. Wreak havoc and then find underlings to take the blame. Don't be surprised if we see a purge of unimportant party figures, the lesser hyenas who have been gorging on Zimbabwe. The one "correction" that might make a difference - the departure of President Mugabe - is not going to happen anytime soon.

We know this because there is no Zimbabwean representative at the Commonwealth Summit in Abuja, Nigeria. The idea being pushed in advance by South Africa, with the support of Britain and the United States, was that President Mugabe would agree a timetable for the transition to multi-party government. The way would have been cleared for Zimbabwean participation and the announcement of a major aid package to get the country moving again.

This was the plan at the heart of South Africa's silent diplomacy. Abuja could have represented a triumphant moment. It might have seen the Commonwealth assert a leading role in the promotion of democratic values in Africa. No blame over the plan's failure should attach to the Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon, who has prevented the tensions over Zimbabwe from descending into a racially antagonistic slanging match. I heard him on Radio 4 the other morning being asked about the tentative challenge to his own leadership.

"I've been a democrat all my life," he said, making the discreet point that accepting an electoral challenge and possibly defeat lies at the heart of the argument about Zimbabwe. It is a pity that the so-called Africanist camp in the Commonwealth won't face that fact. They have sought to present the argument as a battle between the imperial, white West and true sons of Africa. Nonsense. It's about free and fair elections. And the rule of law and the freedom of the press. It is also the right to food, housing and education irrespective of political allegiances.

These are not values owned by the West. In arguing the case for Zimbabwe's readmission to the Commonwealth, countries such as Zambia and Malawi do themselves little credit. They conveniently forget how mass movements in their own lands challenged corruption and tyranny.

It is certainly possible to sympathise with some of the those African and Asian nations which complain of Western double standards over Zimbabwe. For example, how do you explain the logic which excludes Mugabe but seeks the re-admission of military-ruled Pakistan (the position taken by Mr Blair in advance of Abuja). The answer is that you don't explain. Or rather you look for an explanation that makes any kind of moral sense and don't find it. General Musharaf has not sought to reduce his country to an economic basket case, nor has he pursued a vendetta against an ethnic minority. But he did take, and continues to hold, power by the barrel of a gun.

Those who watched the South African crisis divide the Commonwealth in the mid-1980s also remember Britain's leading role in preventing the economic isolation of the apartheid state. It was the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who aroused the fury of other Commonwealth leaders by publicly belittling the financial sanctions they imposed after much divisive debate. The bitterness lingers. The West did not suffer apartheid (in fact it financially benefited) and has largely forgotten it ever existed. Since the transition in 1994 we have been in thrall to the sacred mythology of Nelson Mandela's Rainbow Nation. But those years of suffering have not been forgotten by many of those who now make up South Africa's leadership "frontline states" such as Zambia and Mozambique.

But let us here enter some credits for the British people. During the apartheid years Britain acted as host country for many South African exiles. President Mbeki is an alumnus of a British university. The African National Congress maintained an active office and underground structure here. The anti-apartheid movement in the UK was probably the most active in the world. British intelligence and diplomatic figures were in touch with the ANC long before the British government came around to recognising publicly the organisation. And no less a figure than Nelson Mandela is on record as praising the contribution of British officials to the transition process. Britain has some unenviable baggage to carry on South Africa, beginning with the original wars of conquest, but the past 15 years have seen a determined effort at making up for past sins.

One does not expect the people who suffered from apartheid or colonialism to cheer Britain for this. But to take the view that Mr Blair acts as the cheerleader for a new imperialism in Africa is mistaken. His stated aim is the establishment of democracy in Zimbabwe. That is something the majority of Zimbabweans support. Many of the same British people who supported the struggle against apartheid are also behind the fight for justice in Zimbabwe. The African leaders who back Robert Mugabe should recognise this. They may be acting out of a genuine desire to defend a son of Africa, but I fear they also act out of inherited habit.

There is now a generation of African leaders which are not dictators and monsters. Right across southern Africa there are men who were elected to their posts in free polls. They do not need to be part of any collegiate of the brutal, because they are genuinely different. That is why the tub-thumping in favour of Mugabe is so disappointing. But we shouldn't be too disheartened. These leaders have shown willing to back Zimbabwe's President only in a very limited way. They will not risk splitting the Commonwealth for his sake. Perhaps it is because they sense that the resolution of the Mugabe crisis is inevitable fairly soon. Thabo Mbeki's plan for transition is not yet dead. It is a certainty that by the time the next summit comes around Robert Mugabe will no longer be President. The hope must be that with his departure some of his supporters will begin to accept that human rights are just as much an African idea a Western one. As for the West, it would help to remember simply that the disaster of modern Zimbabwe began with colonialism. A little humility would go a long way.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent