Mugabe needs the bogey of Britain for a while yet

Fergal Keane 'There is one question worth asking: how far is Mr Mugabe prepared to go to preserve his power?'
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The Independent Online

The talks went exactly where everybody knew they would. That is to say, both sides entered without the expectation of progress and had that expectation swiftly confirmed.

It is fair to guess that the Zimbabweans never had any intention of reaching an agreement with the British. That would have drawn the sting of Mr Mugabe's campaign of scapegoating the old colonial power far too early. There are still many weeks to run to the election campaign, and Mr Mugabe needs the bogey of Britain and the white farmers for a while yet. The London talks were a time-buying device for Zanu-PF, an attempt to show the international community and their African neighbours that they were doing something to alleviate their country's slide into anarchy, and to continue with the portrayal of the British government as the colonial oppressor.

I have no doubt that the Zimbabwean ministers who went to London will be hailed as brave figures by the official media back home.

They need all the boosting they can get. For the past week, the paranoia of the Harare government has been escalating. The principal target of Zanu anger is no longer the white farmers but the opposition, which poses such a threat to the continued power and privilege of the ruling élite. In Kariba, one of the jewels of Zimbabwe's crucially important tourist industry, ruling-party mobs went from door to door, savagely beating anybody with the vaguest opposition connections.

If Zanu are willing to do that in Kariba - where tourists spend thousands of badly needed dollars - then we know we've entered the realm of scorched-earth politics. For once, the intensifying smoke of battle is managing to reveal, rather than conceal, the true nature of the conflict: this is about political power, pure and simple.

We know from experience what Mr Mugabe is willing to do to protect his power. For a reminder of how bad it can get, just remember the word Matabeleland. Massacres, disappearances. My feeling is that this present crisis could be much worse. In the case of Matabeleland, Robert Mugabe was dealing with a localised insurrection. But now he faces mounting dissent across the whole country. There is one question worth asking for the army of political analysts, intelligence officers et al who are watching Zimbabwe.

Just how far is Robert Mugabe prepared to go to preserve his power? If we have been shocked by the events of the past few weeks (in reality, they are minor compared to the violence inflicted on minorities and dissidents in many of the countries to the north), then how much worse will it get as the elections approach? The leader of the opposition has spoken of self-defence and taking the violence to the door of the Zanu officials he blames for orchestrating the chaos.

In the circumstances, it was an unwise statement. Such tactics would play directly into the hands of Zanu, who have a great deal more muscle. It wouldn't take more than a few acts of retaliatory violence for Mr Mugabe to claim a national emergency and physically crush the Movement for Democratic Change.

Those of us who have argued from the outset that this crisis needs an African solution have had their case undermined by what looks like a consciously non-interventionist approach by South Africa and the rest of the southern African states. The Victoria Falls summit was a depressing episode, reminiscent of the OAU summits of the 1970s that blithely glossed over the multiple atrocities being committed by the organisation's members. It is an old tradition, we are told, that African leaders do not criticise each other in public at such gatherings. I hope and pray for Zimbabwe's sake, and for all of southern Africa, that they are more frank in private. What we saw instead was a closing of ranks and the tired old rhetoric of the post-colonial era.

On one level, it is possible to appreciate the difficulty faced by somebody like Thabo Mbeki. Robert Mugabe's presentation of the Zimbabwean conflict as an African struggle to regain land stolen by white oppressors has a powerful resonance for the millions of landless blacks beyond the Limpopo in South Africa. It is an issue on which he needs to tread carefully. But now that the focus of Mr Mugabe's wrath has shifted to its true target, it will become more difficult for South Africa and the SADCC countries to stand by.

Thabo Mbeki knows better than anybody how much the ANC was helped by friendly African governments in its fight against apartheid. Without the help of its friends to the north, the organisation could never have kept up a struggle for justice and freedom in South Africa. Now that the people of Zimbabwe are mounting the same struggle, is South Africa going to look the other way? The one effective intervention that South Africa can make is to immediately pressure Mugabe into accepting the deployment of thousands of election monitors. The Pretoria government has the economic clout to make life intolerable for Mr Mugabe should he drag his feet. But this pressure must come now and not simply in the last weeks leading up to the election.

Under the current circumstances, there is no way that Zimbabwe can hold free and fair elections; opposition members can hardly walk on to the streets, let alone campaign for a change of government. The tough police measures introduced by Zanu-PF this week are designed to bolster the state's repressive armoury. It can only get worse. The danger is most acute in the rural areas, where the intervention of the war veterans has created a mentality of siege designed to keep all prying eyes away.

There are enough countries in the region with experience of holding elections under fraught circumstances: South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia come to mind. Any large-scale monitoring presence would have to be African-led, either under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity or SADDC. But there should be wider international representation. The wider world has a stake in Africa both in moral and practical terms. Too often we have ignored the moral responsibility in favour of political self-interest - the Rwandan genocide is a specific example, along with the generalised immorality of propping up loathsome regimes by both East and West during the Cold War.

We ought not to forget that the United Nations Secretary General is an African who has promised to make the crisis of the continent a priority issue during his term of office.

Kofi Annan faces specific difficulties in relation to Zimbabwe - it is a sovereign and democratic state after all. But he could signal his determination to stick up for the principles he preaches by dispatching his human rights representative Mary Robinson to Harare. It would be a very important message to the bully-boys and their political masters. At the moment, Robert Mugabe and Zanu feel that, apart from the nagging of Britain, they are safe from international pressure and condemnation. That sense of self-assurance is dangerous for Zimbabwe, for Africa and the international community. The world has the chance to make small but important moves over the next week. There is still time to halt Zimbabwe's slide into anarchy, but only just.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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