Thursday, 22 March 2007

Zimbabwe in danger of becoming next DR Congo

The spiralling crisis in Zimbabwe is about to take an ominous turn. Until now the situation has been a tragic but domestic issues, but it appears on the verge of becoming an international crisis.
It seems a long time since President Mugabe began to use the coercive power of the state to confiscate land from white farmers and distribute it to the majority black population. The situation has long-since morphed from being an ethnic and class struggle among Zimbabweans to an unequal and often brutal conflict pitting a black-African government against a largely black-African opposition. Over the past few years this crisis has become increasingly tragic and violent.

But until now it has mercifully remained within the borders of Zimbabwe (if one ignores the millions of refugees that have now fled to neighbouring countries). The Mugabe regime has been ostracised internationally: Zimbabwe has been suspended from the Commonwealth, it is under an arms embargo, its assets in Europe have been frozen and its leaders are banned from travel to most of the civilised world (i.e. those bits that respect democracy and the rule of law). But this does not represent an internationalisation of the conflict. This is simply the refusal of civilised countries to have anything to do with kleptocrats and tyrants. Similarly, the criticism of the government by foreign countries is not intervention but interaction and – one would hope – influence. That influence would be more effective if it came from South Africa, but Thabo Mbeki has been pusillanimous in his criticism.

Fortunately, despite the one-sided nature of the conflict, spiralling inflation (the world’s highest rate, at 1,700 per cent), collapsing trade (those white farmers didn’t half sell a lot of tobacco!) and stupidly thuggish land-clearances have undermined the regime to such a degree that it is now struggling to pay its police force. Large numbers of police have resigned due to poor and unreliable wages; commentators are predicting that the situation is reaching its endgame.

Mugabe has one more ace up his sleeve, however. According to The Times he plans to draft in around 2,500 Angolan paramilitary police. Nicknamed “Ninjas” because of their black uniforms (from boots to balaclavas), they terrify the Angolan people. Now they are being lent to Mugabe to help crush dissent. “I doubt if any of them speak English” a police source told the Times. “They can only be here for riot control and to back up our own riot police.”

This is blatantly illegal and represents a dangerous escalation of the crisis. The principle of national sovereignty does not only exist to protect governments from external meddling; it exists as well to protect people from unpopular governments. The people of Zimbabwe know that with patience and resilience they will eventually prevail against Mugabe. But no people can guarantee to prevail against their government if that government relies on foreign troops to crush dissent. Indeed, it is a fine line between foreign support and foreign occupation, as the history of the Soviet Union makes clear.

Fortunately, the world is not powerless to affect this decision. Action is needed promptly, however. Firstly, it must be made plain to President Jos̩ Eduardo dos Santos of Angola that intervening in the internal affairs of another country is unacceptable. He is welcome to give vocal support and continue to deal with the regime if he wishes Рif he has no self-respect Рbut sending his shock-troops to help crack down on the opposition must not be tolerated. If he proves resistant to persuasion and obdurately sends in his thugs, he will be complicit in the violence and oppression that is taking place there, and must be punished alongside Mugabe and his henchmen. In the first instance, this should see an extension of the travel ban and arms embargo extended to Angola. If the intervention continues, Angolan assets in Europe and America should be frozen. Finally, if the situation escalates and Angolan troops commit murder or human rights abuses, charges should be filed before the International Criminal Court.

It is possible, however, that the situation may worsen. Violence begets violence, and there is a danger that foreign intervention may tip Zimbabwe over the edge into civil war. One need only look at the Democratic Republic of the Congo to see what that would mean. (Ironically, Angola and Zimbabwe intervened in the Congo, supporting the unpleasant regime of Laurent Kabila.)

However, there is danger here for Angola as well as Zimbabwe. One of the few clear cases where intervention in a foreign country is deemed legitimate is where it is an act of counter-intervention to drive out a foreign power that is upsetting the natural balance of political forces within a country. All things being equal, civil wars play themselves out: nobody had a right to intervene in the English or American civil wars. But when a party steps in to help one side – as Serbia did in Bosnia, for example, or Liberia in Sierra Leone – it is acceptable and perhaps even desirable to redress the balance and punish the meddling nation.

Angolan intervention in Zimbabwe would therefore open the door to an African or even Western military response that has until now had no justification. Jaded readers may point out that Iraq and Afghanistan raise doubts about the efficacy of Western military action. However, a Zimbabwean campaign would be more like Sierra Leone or East Timor. Mugabe’s backers would collapse and flee very quickly; what little support he has is bought with money that is rapidly losing its value. There is a strong and popular opposition that would unite the country – though it would have to contest open and fair elections with Zanu-PF and other parties so that there was no suggestion that a puppet government was being installed. And once the currency was stabilised and trade restored, Zimbabwe’s battered but naturally strong economy (it was once the bread basket of Africa) would begin to boom.

Military intervention should be a last resort, and considered only if another country sent troops to support Mugabe’s regime. Sadly, the alleged deployment of Angolan paramilitaries is the first stage of just such an intervention. The world must act now to forestall such a deployment if a humanitarian catastrophe – and perhaps warfare – are to be avoided.


Edis said...

One of those situations where you think things cannot possibly get worse, and then they do.

Thank you for this grim update, which helps me keep tabs on what is facing frinds who are in Zimbabwe right now.

Edis said...

According to the International Herald Tribune there have been demonstrations yesterday in Malawi and Botswana supporting the opposition to Mugabe. And the President of Zambia, Levy Mwanawasa, yesterday referred to Zimbawe as a 'Sinking Titanic' and called for a vigorous stand by the Southern Africa Development Community coutries. Sounds like a lot is going on... wonder if any of it will make a difference...