Zimbabwe Chooses an African Delusion

February 11, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal Europe on February 11, 2009

At last, Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, is getting his due when he becomes the prime minister of Zimbabwe today. For a decade, he suffered abuse, imprisonment and torture at the hands of the state. Now he holds the poisoned chalice of a collapsed economy and the impossible task of governing alongside his tormentor, Robert Mugabe, who remains president. This power‐​sharing deal was touted as an African solution to an African problem. In fact, it is a testament to failed leadership and the appallingly low standards of democratic accountability in Africa.

The MDC was born during the 1999 campaign, when Mr. Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader since 1980, lost a constitutional referendum that would allow him to grab more power. Since then, Mr. Mugabe has silenced the press, abolished freedom of assembly, banned most foreign reporters and unleashed waves of violence against the opposition in which thousands of people perished. Over the last decade, Zimbabwe has held four parliamentary and two presidential elections. Each of those polls was rigged in favor of the incumbent, earning Harare much opprobrium in the West.

In contrast, most African election observers ignored Mr. Mugabe’s vote‐​rigging. Abandoned by fellow Africans, Mr. Tsvangirai turned for support and encouragement to the West. That turned out to be a mistake. As Simon Badza, political analyst with the University of Zimbabwe, recently told the BBC, Mr. Tsvangirai “had very limited options. He was increasingly perceived as having no respect for African solutions to African problems. He couldn’t continue defying SADC [the Southern African Development Community], a regional institution.”

African solutions should of course be welcome when they genuinely allow Africans to resolve their own problems. Regional trade liberalization, for example, has the potential to increase the welfare of the African people. In its most malign form, however, the concept of “African solutions” can denote the worst kind of relativism, which holds that standards of just conduct do not apply on the African continent.

When Mr. Mugabe lost the 2008 parliamentary poll and refused to relinquish power, most African leaders ignored the election result and called for power‐​sharing instead. In a deal first struck last September, Mr. Mugabe was to stay on as president and Mr. Tsvangirai was to become the new prime minister. The cabinet seats were to be shared on an equitable basis. When even those generous terms were not enough for Mr. Mugabe, the SADC forced the MDC to share the control of the Home Affairs ministry that supervises Zimbabwe’s police force and electoral machinery with Mr. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. In the end, the MDC relented.

For a decade, Zimbabwe has burned. It boasts the second‐​highest hyperinflation in recorded history and the world’s shortest life‐​spans. Public services are nonexistent. Cholera and hunger haunt the land. Throughout the past 10 years, the SADC ignored its own treaties and commitments to good government and democratic accountability. It made a mockery of the so‐​called African Renaissance touted by South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki and the new generation of African leaders to whom Bill Clinton referred.

Few contemporary African leaders owe their positions to free and fair elections, so it is unsurprising that they have no appetite for condemning Mr. Mugabe. The West has to recognize this fundamental lack of political freedom and accountability in Africa. That is especially important now that tens of billion of dollars have been promised to Africa as part of a new push for African development agreed at the 2005 G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. Proponents of aid understand that the greatest danger to further disbursements of aid is not its manifest failure to bring about economic growth in Africa, but the public’s perception that it is stolen and wasted.

It is for that reason that some aid advocates have tried to sanitize Africa’s democratic record. Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, for example, believes that poverty in the world can be cured by aid to the tune of $150 billion per year. In a 2004 interview, he said that “The idea that African failure is due to African poor governance is one of the great myths of our time.”

Yet, far from being a myth, the SADC’s actions toward Zimbabwe demonstrate that bad government in Africa is tolerated and sometimes even encouraged. Zimbabwe’s power‐​sharing agreement is not a solution, but a delusion.

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