The Battle for Zimbabwe

The Long Road to Liberation

Opposition presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai addresses supporters at a March 3, 2002 rally in Harare (Photo: AFP).

Robert Mugabe has been in power for 22 years, having assumed the presidency of his country following an extended civil war. The post-independence constitutional arrangements, hammered out in London by war-weary leaders, recognized, at long last, majoritarian principles of democracy but made substantial gestures in favor of the minority white community. Political leadership was transferred from Ian Smith, Salisbury, Rhodesia, to Robert Mugabe, Harare, Zimbabwe. Presumably, then, this is Mugabe’s basic perspective: He needs to remain in power in order to right the wrongs of history. In addition, there must be a reordering of the economy so that the vast majority of the people can enjoy the fruits of national liberation. And, as a part of this restructuring, land previously seized by the white settler community during the colonial period must be returned to its original owners, the black Zimbabweans.

Mugabe’s perspective on the land question is not eccentric. It can be demonstrated that historically much of the arable land in Zimbabwe was seized by the white community, and therefore, there is a case to be made for compensation. At the same time, however, fairness would also dictate that land now owned by individuals under the country’s formal system of land titles cannot just be taken away by the state. Many present owners of land in Zimbabwe, black and white, have come to their titles by purchasing the land at market value; if the state seizes it without adequate compensation, it is indulging in a form of unconstitutional expropriation that will eventually lead to social chaos.

So, the land question needs to be resolved by the use of orderly procedures. And yet, recent events in Zimbabwe suggest that grounds for optimism would be misplaced. If we peel away the rhetoric, Mugabe has decided that, as the inheritor of post-colonial control after 1980, he has the right to remain in power for as long as it suits him. Thus, now faced with viable opposition in the form of Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change, Mugabe and ZANU-PF have introduced a series of fundamentally anti-democratic measures.

The media are always among the first casualties of the flight from democracy. And so, not surprisingly, ZANU-PF introduced into the Parliament a bill which requires licensing and registration of journalists and contemplates criminal sanctions against critics of the government. This bill was passed by Parliament on Feb. 1, and now awaits Mugabe’s signature. It was passed even though local journalists demonstrated strongly against it, and even though a former member of Mugabe’s Cabinet and head of the Parliamentary Legal Committee, Eddison Zvobgo, publicly condemned the bill as “the most calculated and determined assault on our liberties guaranteed by the constitution in the 20 years I served as Cabinet minister.”

At the same time, those who would steal elections are usually afraid of impartial observers; and so, again not surprisingly, Mugabe and ZANU-PF have resisted initiatives to have international election observers present for the presidential polls on March 9-10. The methods of evasion used by Mugabe in this context have been circuitous and confusing, but his latest word is that Zimbabwe will allow international observers only if they are headed by a representative from a Third World country. He has also indicated that only observers from certain countries will be allowed to enter the country. Britain, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden are among the countries that will be barred from sending their nationals as observers.

Each country probably still has the right under international law to determine whether or not it will have foreign observers. But, by the same token, each country also has the right to introduce certain types of sanctions against other countries. Accordingly, in view of the anti-democratic measures taken by Zimbabwe, the European Union has unanimously agreed to impose sanctions on Mugabe and his closest associates if they do not permit full scrutiny of the Zimbabwean campaign. [Sanctions were imposed on Feb. 18.]

The Commonwealth has, however, been less firm on the issue. At the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) meeting last Wednesday, Britain, Australia, Canada, and Barbados supported suspension of Zimbabwe, while Botswana, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Nigeria opposed it. The CMAG decision will certainly be read by ZANU-PF as a wink and a nudge in favor of the suppression of democratic rights. Suspension would have been a strong statement to Mugabe that Zimbabwe risks pariah status if he proceeds, through thuggery, state corruption, and suppression of civil liberties, to steal the forthcoming elections. CMAG is in error, and those who support press freedom, free elections, and fairness in public affairs should not be afraid to say so.