New Constitutional Deal in Zimbabwe

Amazing, but presumably true, BBC News reports that Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe have struck a deal on a new constitution that will pave the way for elections. I guess what really shocks me is the photo:

Tsvangirai and the old crocodile together again
Tsvangirai and Mugabe together again

After reading Peter Godwin’s book on Mugabe’s reign of terror, which documents the devastating violence committed against Tsvangirai; and following the relentless animosity between these two; well, you just wouldn’t imagine them yucking it up together in a spirit of comradery.

But I guess that’s why I find politics so interesting. It’s nice to be surprised.

That said, most Zimbabweans are going to be pretty skeptical that any deal is going to stick, and will now reacquaint themselves with fears of pre-electoral violence.

Bob Mugabe’s Birthday of gay- and foreigner-bashing

When you’ve ruined a country, blaming other people is definitely an appealing political strategy: low cost, and often pretty effective. Long-time dictator Robert Mugabe played this tired song once more at his recent 88th birthday party in Mutare…

NGOs come with these stupid ideas, some to destabilise us. Quite often they support one party. We say to them get away from our country. Leave us to solve our political problems. Leave us to manage our own systems (see Mail & Guardian).

He also had a few choice words for the growing international pressure to recognize gay rights:

Please, young men and women, you don’t have the freedom for men to marry men and women to marry women. You have the freedom for men to marry women. That’s God’s freedom. That’s what created you and me.

And not surprisingly, the culmination of a speech knocking down these other actors was a plea for “unity” of the Zimbabwean nation…

We used to fight each other. Time has come for us to do our politics in a much more cultured way. Although our differences are ideological and sometimes quite negative, we should not regard them as a source of hatred.

Apparently, about 20,000 people attended the old crocodile’s celebration (Mail online), but in a country with massive poverty and fear of state-sponsored beatings, it’s easy to understand why an individual would show up for some free food and cake.

Successful AIDS tax in Zimbabwe

Sometimes it’s easier to assume that everything is worse in Zimbabwe.  A failing kleptocracy, with a president who makes everyone’s short-list of despicable tyrants, Zim always provides ample ammunition for arguments about the superiority of democratic governance for human development.

And yet, the government has had a fairly successful AIDS levy, which the UN reports has helped to close some of the funding gap associated with declining donor support and increased needs. The levy is a 3 percent tax on income, and with some improved political and economic stability in the past year, this is generating several million dollars in income, perhaps about $25 million in 2011.

Generally, I am not one for ear-marked taxes, but in certain cases, such as war and national disasters, the notion of a general solidarity fund is a quite reasonable way to raise revenues. In the case of AIDS, not only does it provide a justification for an extra burden, but it can help to de-stigmatize the disease by making its eradication a national project. To be certain, there have been reports that AIDS funding from donors and from the tax have not all made their way to the people who need treatment or related services. But along these lines, I must say that when I was in Zimbabwe in November 2010, I visited several observed pretty well functioning government clinics.

Of course, my point is not that the general state of affairs in Zimbabwe is much rosier than what we generally hear (see, for example, my review of Godwin’s The Fear), but that good ideas sometimes come from unlikely places; and that one of the reasons that awful regimes don’t collapse as quickly as we think they should is because they sometimes make and implement decent policies.

Mugabe and the very best fast food chicken

Even if you are not a big fan of fast food, if you travel through Southern Africa, you really do need to sample Nando’s — a truly delicious and increasingly ubiquitous Portuguese-style chicken emporium. In good fun, they feature our friend, Robert Mugabe, in a recent commercial… which due to a few political sensitivities was taken off the air. But for your viewing enjoyment, I post it here.

Gay rights in Africa, Zimbabwe

The heat generated by the issue of gay rights in America is just barely lukewarm compared with what one finds on the African continent. In an article on same-sex marriage in Portugal a couple of weeks ago, the NY Times provided this graphic:

which shows 10 sub-Saharan countries with penalties of 10 or more years of prison time for gay male relationships (and many other countries have less severe penalties, let alone widespread informal discrimination). Only in South Africa — where actual treatment of gays varies widely throughout the country — is gay marriage legal.

The interesting news this week is Morgan Tsvangirai’s bold statement that he would support gay rights in Zimbabwe were he to become president. In the BBC story and interview, not only did Tsvangirai reverse his 2010 statement on the issue — agreeing with Mugabe’s view on the matter — but he proclaimed that this was a “human right.”

For some time, I have been trying to find the time to do some systematic research explaining cross-country variation on attitudes and policies towards gays… and I am still trying. In the meantime, I would love to know what led Tsvangirai to make this statement — one that is clearly not going to score him any important political points at election time next year.

New York Mag on The Fear

On Friday, I blogged about Peter Godwin’s excellent new book, The Fear.

This week, New York Magazine placed the book in the coveted upper-right corner of their approval matrix.

Coincidence? Or causal effect?

The Approval Matrix – Week of April 18, 2011 — New York Magazine.

If you haven’t yet read it, the other fine work to land in this coveted position is my colleague, Gary Bass’ book, Freedom’s Battle, a political-historical analysis of humanitarian intervention — a topic that could hardly be more important given the day’s events:


Review of Peter Godwin’s THE FEAR – The Last Days of Robert Mugabe

In his latest book, The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe, Peter Godwin delivers a superbly written account of contemporary Zimbabwean politics. But it is no pleasure read. We all knew that Mugabe was a bad guy, but Godwin bears witness to the almost unthinkable acts of terror that this dictator carried out against ordinary citizens and political activists. There is very little to smile or to laugh about, or, frankly, to feel hopeful about. Nonetheless, this is a necessary chronicle of how a man has managed to stay in power for more than 30 years, amassing great personal fortunes, even while social conditions have plummeted since the promising early years of independence.

I met Godwin a few years ago when he was giving a talk at Princeton, and subsequently had a chance to meet with him about common interests in Southern Africa. It had been at least a year since I saw him last, when I was in Southern Africa this past November and saw him being interviewed on South African television. I was en route from Joburg to Zimbabwe to do a bit of work and research with a human rights organization there. Although his book was everywhere in South Africa, it was certainly nowhere to be found in Zim. A week and a half later when I was on line for my flight home I saw Godwin boarding the same flight and we took a cab home together, as we live in the same neighborhood, and he kindly gave me a copy of the book, which is the one I just read… finally, after too many months on my shelf. The American version is published by Little, Brown, and has a slightly different cover.

Godwin was born and raised in Zimbabwe, and much of his and his family’s relationship with the country is chronicled in two earlier autobiographical books, Mukiwa and When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. Having worked as journalist, lawyer, soldier, and human rights activist, but living now in New York with his family, he writes as both insider and outsider, a patriot to some, a traitor to Mugabe apologists. The Fear intertwines just a bit of family portraiture – conversations with his sister and mother – with what is largely a chronicle of travels around Zimbabwe in 2008.

The Fear provides some insight into the state of national politics, including what is now pretty well known – such as how Morgan Tsvangirai has been outmaneuvered by Mugabe in several rounds of political brinkmanship, the lackluster response of African leaders, and fissures within the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). But the real contribution is Godwin’s narratives of the brutality of Mugabe’s CIA- and secret police-equivalents and ZANU-PF party loyalists. Take, for example, the not-even-close to being the most violent account in the book — of Denias Dombo, who “believed it when he was told that Zimbabwe was to hold free and fair elections.” He did his work as district secretary for the MDC, and went to investigate a report of a colleague being beaten by ZANU-PF rivals. He soon found his house burned, and then when confronting attackers of his family,

…they converged upon him, with their rocks and iron bars and their heavy sticks, until, he says, ‘my blood was rushing everywhere.’ He tried to protect his head with his arms while they beat him. ‘I heard the bones in my arms crack and I cried out: “Oh, Jesus, I’m dying here – what have I done wrong?” ‘ And as they beat him, on and on, his assailants made him shout ‘Pamberi ne [up with] Robert Mugabe,’ ‘Pamberi ne ZANU-PF,’ ‘Pasi ne [down with] Tsvangirai.’

Dombo’s was just one of many, many accounts of ruthless campaigns that resulted in crowded hospitals and widespread deaths.

While Godwin recounts Mugabe’s many attempts to blame all the country’s current problems on the legacy of white rule, he makes clear that this claim has become stale in the wake of the regime’s legacy of deliberate destruction. The book offers no explanation for the Mugabe terror except for the insanity of the man himself. While there is surely something to the thesis of Mahmood Mamdani’s book, When Victims Become Killers, Godwin fingers most of the blame on a man whose traits and habits emerge as laughable as much as they are frightening. But he also shows that Mugabe has become an institution and has created a large enough cabal of dependencies that there exist reinforcing mechanisms maintaining his rule.

As I read the book, a few things struck me as strange — which is not to say that I doubt they were true, but simply that they deserve further exploration. For example, on so many occasions, after acts of unspeakable state-sponsored violence, citizens would attempt to contact the police, and then almost invariably find themselves frustrated with the lack of interest or results. Why, in such a system, would citizens even surmise that they might receive any action? Perhaps they still just hope that the state can function for them as a source of justice, and they simply need a place to register that they have been victimized.

On my brief stint to Zimbabwe, I was not even looking for evidence of state violence, and yet I found it. When visiting a small rural town in the Eastern part of the country, my colleague/host and I met with an NGO worker who trembled when recounting that the previous day he had unexpectedly been confronted with a small dose of the fear. He had been roughed up by a pair of “special police” for having helped to facilitate a play about political reconciliation. He described strange tactics, including the men later taking him for a beer. But he clearly feared for his life, worrying about whether or not they were trying to poison him, as he never saw the beer opened and wondered if they might have slipped something in the bottle. Undoubtedly, if the goal was to instill fear, the tactics had worked.

There is a bit of irony to the back page which refers readers to the author’s website for suggestions about how to “help the people of Zimbabwe.” That website provides a few links to some Zimbabwean NGO’s. After reading the book, my conclusion was that until Mugabe’s truly last day, not that much is going to make a difference. With reports of Mugabe’s ill health and long-overdue pressure from regional neighbors, maybe that day will come soon.

Tsvangirai and “Early” Elections in Zimbabwe

Virtually every credible observer agrees that Robert Mugabe robbed Morgan Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe’s presidency following the 2008 elections. And Tsvangirai almost surely maintains more popular support. But he is not calling for a quick re-match — on the contrary, he’s been threatening a boycott should elections be announced. Mugabe’s push for early presidential and parliamentary elections is almost evidence enough that he intends for them to be neither free nor fair. Reuters is reporting increased violence and crackdowns on political opposition. And when I was traveling in Zimbabwe in November citizens and human rights advocates were already concerned about the prospects of an election as they were not yet ready to jeopardize the relative calm they were experiencing. The difficult question now becomes, what will it actually take to create the right conditions for a fair election?

To be certain, the most powerful weapon Mugabe has used to maintain rule after three decades is Fear — the title of Peter Godwin’s excellent book, which I am just finishing and will review more fully in a post within the next week. At the moment, Zimbabwe is another hotspot that surely figures low on most foreign policy agendas at the moment given all the crises in other corners of the globe, and I wonder to what extent Mugabe is trying to capitalize on this opportunity. But the situation remains a huge concern for the Southern African region because instability is likely to fuel greater migration from Zimbabwe to neighboring countries — and those countries have not been feeling particularly hospitable in recent years, as evidenced most prominently by the spate of Xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Continued poor management of the “Zimbabwe crisis,” will also continue to look poorly on the South African government, which has been expected to play a lead role in managing the situation and has performed disastrously for years. Today, the New York Times reports on seemingly genuine expressions of pressure from Zambia, Mozambique, and South Africa.

Few places are more frustrating and depressing. Once the absolute great hope of Africa, Zimbabwe is today a hotbed of violence, tension, and failed infrastructure. And yet, during my brief trip, I met many incredibly smart and talented Zimbabweans and learned about many positive initiatives from the Harare mayor; and my plane from Johannesburg was packed with business people looking to explore possible opportunities. But is it possible to solve the humanitarian crises before resolving the political ones? Old dilemmas about sanctions pertain here: they surely place some real hurt on ordinary citizens who are the major victims of political conflict, but lift them before real political change and they may only  help Mugabe. Contemporary Zimbabwe is a bona fide quagmire. The other SADC countries really need to step up and help to hold Mugabe and his closest thugs accountable.