Richard Dowden: What now of Blair's Africa vision after Zimbabwe?

It is hard to find a single current African leader who is willing to criticise Mugabe
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The Independent Online

Suddenly the upbeat "let's celebrate Africa" mood and Blair's grand plans to save the continent have hit reality; African politics. In Zimbabwe, the overwhelming victory of Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party in Friday's parliamentary elections is a stark reminder that Africa's politics have their own particular dynamics.

Suddenly the upbeat "let's celebrate Africa" mood and Blair's grand plans to save the continent have hit reality; African politics. In Zimbabwe, the overwhelming victory of Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party in Friday's parliamentary elections is a stark reminder that Africa's politics have their own particular dynamics.

For Zimbabwe it is the worst possible result. The next election there will be the presidential one in 2008 and between now and then the country will remain in limbo; its economy in ruins, its people wracked by HIV/Aids and its government shunned by Western donors. But the collapse of Zimbabwe is a minor setback to the Afro-optimism and Blair's commitment to change Africa.

The really serious blow is the reaction of the rest of the continent. The official South African observer mission declared the result "the will of the people" on Saturday even while other observers were trying to check out allegations of massive fraud. The other African observer missions will almost certainly say that there were"'irregularities" but that the election was basically free and fair, a vast improve- ment on 2000.

Africa does not support Western policy towards Zimbabwe. In fact many African politicians regard it as a "tiff" between Zimbabwe and Britain caused by British concern for its own "kith and kin" there; the white farmers. Even President Ben Mkapa of Tanzania, hand-picked by Tony Blair to serve on his Africa Commission, says that what has happened to Zimbabwe is "the price of transformation". It is hard to find a single current African leader who is willing to criticise him.

All this bodes badly for the New Deal for Africa laid out by Blair's Commission for Africa under which rich countries level the playing field for trade, raise massive funds for development and write off Africa's debts while in return African rulers commit themselves to good government and monitoring each other's behaviour. The African Union's Peer Review Mechanism, made up of Africa's great and good, is supposed to police the continent's governments on everything from human rights to economic management. This deal is in jeopardy.

British government policy has hit a brick wall. Well might the Foreign Office ponder how this small agricultural country in southern Africa has produced only two leaders in 50 years, Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe, who have both given the finger to the rest of the world. The diplomats must now work out how Mugabe turned near-defeat five years ago - 61 seats to 58 - into a 78-41 victory on Friday while the economy had declined by about 50 per cent. There are factors: 3 million of Zimbabwe's 11.8 million people have fled the country. The voters' roll and the results were almost cer- tainly fixed. But that cannot explain all.

Many voted for Mugabe simply because he is president - a common political view in rural Africa. Others have a tribal one-of-us mentality. Some may have also been afraid - even though this election was far less violent than 2000. Many may have feared that if they did not vote for Zanu-PF, they would not get food aid. But the opinion polls showed that outside Zimbabwe's towns Mugabe's popularity had gone up in the past year. Singing the liberation struggle battle hymns against whites and Britain, and handing out seized land and food aid, worked.

As Jack Straw and others pick over the wreckage of British policy they will be forced to admit ruefully that it contributed to Mugabe's success. Trying to browbeat Mugabe with threats and condemnation played straight into his hands as he turned every insult back on his accusers, supercharged with anti-colonial rhetoric. British support for the opposition candidate and regime change also boosted Mugabe making Morgan Tsvangirai look like a British puppet. The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq was another gift proving that Britain still acted in an imperial way.

Britain can take some heart from Mugabe's own difficulties created by his very success. He has secured the two thirds majority in parliament needed to change the constitution so in theory he can install the successor of his choice on his own terms. In practice, his government is increasingly drawn from his own family and members of his Zezuru people, alienating other Shona clans such as the powerful Karanga.

Britain has been forced to learn that the only way it can influence Zimbabwe's future is through other African allies, particularly South Africa. As in the days of rebel Rhodesia, South Africa holds the key. But Blair and President Thabo Mbeki fell out over Zimbabwe at the Commonwealth Summit in 2003. Since then Mbeki has shown little sign of changing his mind and announced before the election that he was confident it would comply with regional standards. If Britain is going to go the diplomatic route it will be a long walk.

In the meantime the British sherpas carrying Africa to the top of the agenda at the G8 summit at Glen- eagles in July will find their route littered with prickly obstacles marked "Made in Zimbabwe".

The writer is Director of the Royal African Society

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