The Ob­server view on Bri­tain’s re­sponse to re­pres­sion in Zim­babwe

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion / The Guardian View - Ob­server ed­i­to­rial

Last Novem­ber, when news spread through Harare that Robert Mu­gabe had re­signed af­ter 37 years of mis­rule, joy­ous crowds poured on to the streets of the Zim­bab­wean cap­i­tal. They cheered, sang and even em­braced the soldiers whose in­ter­ven­tion had forced the de­par­ture of the age­ing au­to­crat.

These scenes con­vinced many over­seas that Mu­gabe had been ousted by a pop­u­lar revo­lu­tion, a sort of Harare spring. This was not the case. Mu­gabe was ousted be­cause Zim­babwe’s gen­er­als feared the ail­ing 94-year-old au­to­crat was about to anoint his 54-yearold wife as his suc­ces­sor. So they joined forces with a pow­er­ful fac­tion within the rul­ing Zanu-PF party led by Em­mer­son Mnan­gagwa to get rid of him. Mu­gabe was col­lat­eral dam­age of this in­ternecine power strug­gle.

Once in power, Mnan­gagwa made all the right noises, talk­ing of democ­racy and in­vest­ment. He even spoke of re­join­ing the Com­mon­wealth, an am­bi­tion that the then for­eign sec­re­tary, Boris John­son, de­scribed as “fan­tas­tic news”.

Even though Mnan­gagwa is ac­cused of play­ing a key role in bru­tal re­pres­sion in Zim­babwe over decades, many took the for­mer spy chief at his word. When he called elec­tions and in­vited in Com­mon­wealth, EU and US ob­servers, as well as in­ter­na­tional me­dia, this was seen as ev­i­dence of real change. The cam­paign was rel­a­tively peace­ful and the op­po­si­tion Move­ment for Demo­cratic Change (MDC) was al­lowed to hold ral­lies all over the coun­try with­out se­ri­ous im­ped­i­ment for the first time.

Mnan­gagwa won the elec­tion and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity ap­peared happy to sign off on the poll. It had been un­doubt­edly flawed but was a vast im­prove­ment on any­thing seen in Zim­babwe for decades. Pri­vately, British of­fi­cials said the elec­tion pointed the way to the sunny up­lands of sta­bil­ity and pros­per­ity for 16 mil­lion peo­ple.

Such op­ti­mism now looks naive. Less than 48 hours af­ter polls closed, the army opened fire on protesters in Harare, none car­ry­ing any­thing more dan­ger­ous than stones or sticks, killing six. Since then, a wave of re­pres­sion has bro­ken across Zim­babwe: noc­tur­nal ab­duc­tions, beat­ings by masked men, raids on op­po­si­tion ar­eas and of­fices, hun­dreds of ac­tivists in hid­ing.

An­a­lysts are di­vided as to whether Mnan­gagwa has ap­proved the crack­down or is un­able to re­strain hard­lin­ers. Ei­ther way, any hope of in­ter­na­tional le­git­i­macy – and of the much-needed fi­nan­cial bailout – is fad­ing fast.

Bri­tain, the for­mer colo­nial power, has a par­tic­u­lar re­spon­si­bil­ity. It is un­likely that Pres­i­dent Trump can iden­tify Zim­babwe on a map. China’s in­flu­ence is less than some be­lieve. To­day, Harare is one of the few cities in the world where peo­ple gen­uinely see Lon­don as hav­ing sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence in lo­cal af­fairs.

The British gov­ern­ment has been more for­ward in its sup­port for Mnan­gagwa than any other power. This pol­icy may have been rooted in man­darins’ in­stinc­tive be­lief that he is a states­man need­ing our sup­port. There is also the cold re­al­ity that Theresa May’s ad­min­is­tra­tion des­per­ately needs a for­eign pol­icy win. In these pre-Brexit days, one that in­volves a for­mer an­glo­phone colony would be es­pe­cially wel­come.

There have been costs to this pol­icy, though. Our en­thu­si­asm for Mnan­gagwa has dis­ap­pointed and alien­ated much of the op­po­si­tion – the peo­ple now be­ing de­tained, beaten or shot. It will take decades to over­come this deep anger.When John­son wel­comed the plan to re­join the Com­mon­wealth, he stressed that “Zim­babwe must now show com­mit­ment to Com­mon­wealth val­ues of democ­racy and hu­man rights”. This its rulers have clearly not done. So far, British state­ments have only ex­pressed con­cern and dis­ap­proval at the on­go­ing re­pres­sion.

It is time to go much fur­ther. We should make it ab­so­lutely clear that our sup­port for any read­mis­sion of Zim­babwe to the Com­mon­wealth is con­tin­gent on an im­me­di­ate end to the crack­down and will only come af­ter at least a year with­out any re­lapse. Nei­ther is any other form of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pos­si­ble – cer­tainly not the ma­jor loans that Zim­babwe’s rulers so badly want. A strong state­ment will not only make it eas­ier for Mnan­gagwa to face down the hard­lin­ers if he is com­mit­ted to re­form, but might go some way to mit­i­gate the deep hos­til­ity to the UK now felt by so many hon­est, brave peo­ple in Zim­babwe.

Pho­to­graph: Marco Lon­gari/AFP/Getty Images

Zim­babwe’s pres­i­dent-elect Em­mer­son Mnan­gagwa de­fends the elec­tion in which he was de­clared win­ner, on 3 Au­gust.

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