Let Robert Mu­gabe go qui­etly – pun­ish­ing him will not help Zim­babwe

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Jonathan Freed­land

f all the ques­tions hang­ing over the dra­matic, un­cer­tain events in ZimObabwe

there is one that looms es­pe­cially large. It is the same ques­tion that arises ev­ery time, and in ev­ery place, a long-es­tab­lished dic­ta­tor­ship is top­pled. What to do with the once supreme leader him­self ?

Per­haps, as the Guardian’s Africa cor­re­spon­dent Ja­son Burke sug­gests, Robert Mu­gabe will stay on as a “fig­ure­head”, while those who ousted him get on with gov­ern­ing the coun­try. Al­ter­na­tively, there’s the sug­ges­tion floated in a BBC in­ter­view this morn­ing by Tendai Biti, a Zim­bab­wean op­po­si­tion leader and for­mer fi­nance min­is­ter: that Mu­gabe head for ex­ile in Sin­ga­pore, which has served in re­cent years as a vir­tual “sec­ond home” for the 93year-old. If Mu­gabe and his “beau­ti­ful wife” wanted to go there, said Biti, “no one should pre­vent him.”

I won­der how either sce­nario would sound to those Zim­bab­weans who blame Mu­gabe for re­duc­ing their once-pros­per­ous coun­try to penury. Or those whose loved ones were jailed, beaten or killed on Mu­gabe’s or­ders. Surely they would very much want to pre­vent the dic­ta­tor either re­tain­ing his ti­tle or en­joy­ing his fi­nal years in com­fort and safety in a for­eign cap­i­tal. Surely they would want to see him an­swer in court for what he has done. Surely they would yearn for jus­tice.

Yet per­haps Biti had in mind the ex­pe­ri­ence of other na­tions, in Africa and be­yond. Con­trast, for ex­am­ple, the fate of two na­tions whose lead­ers were ousted dur­ing the Arab spring of 2011. In Libya, Muam­mar Gaddafi was hunted down and caught by rebels, who in the name of re­venge beat him to a bru­tal death. In Tu­nisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali ended his 23 years in power by board­ing a plane to ex­ile in Saudi Ara­bia. Libya re­mains a coun­try in tur­moil, while Tu­nisia boasts that it is the sole democ­racy of the Arab Mid­dle East – and the one suc­cess story of 2011.

Now per­haps that is a co­in­ci­dence, ow­ing noth­ing to the very dif­fer­ent fates of the two de­posed lead­ers. But it’s un­de­ni­able that so­ci­eties that make the tran­si­tion from dic­ta­tor­ship of­ten have to sac­ri­fice the urge to see the dic­ta­tor him­self brought to jus­tice. In Chile, there were tens of thou­sands of fam­i­lies who saw Au­gusto Pinochet as the mur­derer of their son or daugh­ter, fa­ther or sis­ter. And yet, in or­der to see him re­moved from power, they had to watch as he was granted the spe­cial sta­tus – ini­tially anointed a “sen­a­tor for life” – that would al­low him im­mu­nity from pros­e­cu­tion. As a would-be Chilean pros­e­cu­tor rue­fully put it: “Our coun­try has the de­gree of jus­tice that po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion per­mits us to have.”

It is an age-old ten­sion, known to all so­ci­eties emerg­ing from con­flict. Some­times it means al­low­ing the re­lease of pris­on­ers guilty of acts of great vi­o­lence – wit­ness the Good Fri­day agree­ment in North­ern Ire­land; some­times it means al­low­ing the most bru­tal dic­ta­tors to walk away scot-free, never brought to ac­count. The bleak truth that Zim­babwe might be about to demon­strate once more is that, even though it is hu­man to long for jus­tice and peace, we can of­ten have one or the other – but not both.

• Jonathan Freed­land is a Guardian colum­nist

When­ever a long­stand­ing dic­ta­tor­ship is top­pled, the ques­tion arises: what to do with the once supreme leader him­self ?

‘Surely Zim­bab­weans would want to see Robert Mu­gabe an­swer in court for what he has done. Surely they would yearn for jus­tice?’ Pho­to­graph: Jeke­sai Njik­izana/AFP/Getty Images

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