Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Meaning of Mugabe

"We are not a British colony. You must know that." Robert Mugabe

The recent political crisis in Zimbabwe centering around veteran freedom fighter and President Robert Mugabe has drawn much attention from media in the Global North. Mr. Mugabe has been accused of using political and military power to suppress dissent, rig elections, dispense land and other favors to his friends and of doing everything he can to hang on to office long after his time to leave has come. These accusations have come from outside and from within Zimbabwe, although other African leaders have at times been reluctant to join the Mugabe-bashing bandwagon.

There can be no question of defending Mr. Mugabe's apparent lust for power or his use of strong-arm tactics, intimidation and harassment of his opposition. However, this post is not about that. There is no dearth of material on that count. But the matter does not stop here. The crisis of Robert Mugabe is in part a crisis of the legitimacy of the Global North in general and of the US-UK in particular. Listen to what Mugabe says in the video embedded above. He may be 84 and therefore somewhat impaired in judgment but there is no mistaking the basic idea upon which he perceives his moral authority to rest. Namely: "We (the Global South) have not forgotten colonialism. For some of us (Zimbabwe, for e.g.) it is not a distant historical memory, but rather a living memory, a phenomenon that came to an end not quarter of a century ago. On what basis can the Global North, the UK in particular presume to sit in judgment on the very people whom they have subjugated and enslaved in living memory?" This irony of an ex colonial power becoming holier-than-thou, preaching the virtues of democracy to its erstwhile colony, seems lost on the BBC. It is up to Mr. Mugabe to point out the obvious.

Note though, that I am not saying what Mr. Mugabe has done domestically is noble or even defensible. But neither do I think he is simply a thug out to get as much as he can out of the presidency. Further, he is able to retain moral authority, if not in everyone's eyes, at least in some people's, precisely by pointing out that his critics in the West/Global North have no moral legitimacy. The Northern media, so eager to dive into the gory details of the rivalry between Mr. Mugabe and the opposition leader Mr. Morgan Tsvangarai, so eager to give a blow-by-blow account of the rigged elections, the messed up land reform process and so on, has unsurprisingly not found the time to engage in a little bit of self-reflection, has not found the time to think about why Mugabe can so easily point to its lack of legitimacy in criticizing him. Is he just a senile fool, living in the colonial past, when the world has long moved on?

The meaning of Mugabe is something we should all understand. I don't deny that in some ways it is the age old story: dragging out the bogey of "western imperialism" to suppress dissent and cling on to power at home. Perhaps some of you think this has long gone out of fashion and by drawing upon this trick, Mr. Mugabe is only showing how out of touch he is with the world. No doubt for some talking about colonialism in the days of globalization seems very passe indeed.

But I beg to differ. I understand that "western imperialism" has conveniently come to rescue of many a tyrant in the Global South before, and nor will Mugabe be the last one to deploy it. But let us not lose sight of the other half of the puzzle. In our eagerness to be democratic and ruthlessly self-critical (self = the community of developing nations), let us not let the Global North and its self-declared "free press" off the hook. In fact we should use phenomena like Mugabe to bring to attention this fact: leaders like Mugabe are able to sustain a modicum of moral authority because the US, the UK and the rest of the Northern leadership, for some of us, has no moral legitimacy whatsoever. Just as we thought the bad old days of colonialism are behind us, just as the Global North was gaining some respectability, there come Afghanistan and Iraq, reminding us once again what we should never have forgotten: Let us by all means be critical of our leaders, let us strive constantly for establishing just, inclusive, peaceful societies, but let us not pretend that the Global North and its media are great defenders of human rights and democracy, watchdogs of tyranny wherever it may arise. They are not and never have been.

There is no dearth of critical articles on Mugabe and the Zimbabwean crisis. A rarer perspective on Mugabe, at least in the Global North, can be found here.

No comments:

Post a Comment