Actually, WikiLeaks only laid bare how Morgan Tsvangirai sets back his own political fortunes in Zimbabwe

Dec 29, 2010

"Cablegate" courtesy of Wikileaks has shown the amazing level of interest of the United States government in the affairs of the little country of Zimbabwe.

 The US claims it is mainly interested to see the Zimbabwean people get out from under the yoke of the repressive rule of a certain Robert Mugabe.Cynics point to how the US has no trouble going to bed with repressive despots who are in their pockets all over the globe. They instead suggest geopolitical and economic interests which the US cannot achieve with a despot of Mugabe's caliber. Mugabe who does not take kindly to being put in anybody's pocket, least of all that of countries whose governments looked the other way when he and his presently ruling henchmen were in jail or otherwise in the trenches for decades, fighting colonial and racial oppression before they too became oppressors.

So whether one looks at Mugabe & Co. claiming to be in the sites of US diplomatic guns because they seek to 'empower' the citizenry by among other things seizing farms from whites, or his US and British opponents who claim their only interest is 'democracy' for Zimbabweans, there are no clean and pure guys in sight. All have self-serving agendas in which the best interests of Zimbabweans are often secondary or lower.

Whether Zimbabwe mainly represents a  story of a country under the rule of a despot or is instead mainly the struggle of an African nation to control its resources and destiny from the prying, interfering hands of foreigners partly depends on who you are.                 

Mugabe's principal opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, is prime minister in an uncomfortable coalition government in which Mugabe is still president. Britain and the US have seen it fit to give Mr. Tsvangirai all kinds of support over the years in his efforts to unseat Mugabe, which would also delight the US and Britain (and certainly also many Zimbabweans, though perhaps not as many as is widely assumed, for reasons outside the scope of this post).

But it turns out that despite that support, a previous and the current US ambassador to Zimbabwe have a rather dim view of Tsvangirai's political smarts. According to the leaked Wikicables, US diplomats wonder if he is quite up to the job of outwitting the ruthless fox he is up against, and say he will need 'much handholding' if he ever becomes top dog in Zimbabwe.

Tsvangirai has been a brave man to take on the ruthless Mugabe, as a former US ambassador to Zimbabwe mentioned in a now leaked cable to his bosses. But Tsvangirai has also made a lot of gaffes which have made it easy for Mugabe & Co. to characterize him as a bungling, clueless lackey of Britain and the US.     

The bungle of interest here is the allegation in a Wikicable that Tsvangirai publicly joined Mugabe & Co in calling for the lifting of western 'targeted sanctions' against Mugabe and his henchmen, but privately to those western backers of his asked that the targeted screws on Mugabe be kept on. This is part of the subject of December 28 2010 opinion piece by one Christopher R. Albon on the website of the American analysis magazine The Atlantic. It is titled How WikiLeaks Just Set Back Democracy in Zimbabwe.    

As a Zimbabwean I read a lot of shallow stuff passing for Zimbabwe analysis in the western media. But Albon's piece is carefully written and he displays a deep understanding of the Zimbabwean political chess game that is rare in the US media. He also seems genuinely concerned about the welfare of Zimbabweans. Neither does he hide his feeling that Tsvangirai is the 'democratic' messianic Moses who must be helped to 'rescue' Zimbabwe from the 'evil' pharoah Mugabe.     


...Tsvangirai and his political party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), are considered Zimbabwe's greatest hopes for unseating the country's long-time de facto dictator Robert Mugabe and bringing democratic reforms to the country.

Tsvangirai told the western officials that, while there had been some progress in the last year, Mugabe and his supporters were dragging their feet on delivering political reforms.

To overcome this, he said that the sanctions on Zimbabwe "must be kept in place" to induce Mugabe into giving up some political power. The prime minister openly admitted the incongruity between his private support for the sanctions and his public statements in opposition. If his political adversaries knew Tsvangirai secretly supported the sanctions, deeply unpopular with Zimbabweans, they would have a powerful weapon to attack and discredit the democratic reformer.

Zimbabwe's Mugabe-appointed attorney general announced he was investigating the Prime Minister on treason charges based exclusively on the contents of the leaked cable. While it's unlikely Tsvangirai could be convicted on the contents of the cable alone, the political damage has already been done.

... the Prime Minister might be forced to take positions in opposition to the international community to avoid accusation of being a foreign corroborator....Zimbabwe's fragile coalition government could collapse completely. Whatever happens, democratic reforms in Zimbabwe are far less likely now than before the leak.

To their supporters, WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange are heroes of the democratic cause. Assange himself has claimed that his organization promotes democracy by strengthening the media. But in Zimbabwe, Assange's pursuit of this noble goal has provided a tyrant with the ammunition to wound, and perhaps kill, any chance for multiparty democracy. Earlier this month, Assange claimed that "not a single person, as far as anyone is aware, has been harmed" by Wikileaks' practices. This is no longer true, if it ever was.

Writing on, Colin Eager pens a brilliant response (Wikileaks, Zimbabwe, and Democracy) to Albon's heartfelt but weakly argued sympathy for Tsvangirai's plight in view of the Wikileaks revelations:

So the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe is meeting with western powers to demand that they continue with the sanctions that he claims to oppose, sanctions that are “deeply unpopular with Zimbabweans.” So he lies to his people and works against their stated interests, but that’s apparently ok, since he is “democratic.” This is an interesting definition of democracy.

To Albon's point that the leak of Tsvangirai's double dealing on the sanctions could provide Mugabe with the pretense to abandon the coalition government that allowed Tsvangirai to become prime minister in 2009 the same commenting reader responded:

I’m not sure that Mugabe needs a “pretense” to do anything. He’s an old dictator with state violence and private terror at his disposal. If he wants to do something, he’ll do it. But beyond that, we’re not talking about “pretense” here. We’re talking about reality.It seems that the leaked cables reveal that Tsvangirai really is “an agent of foreign governments working against the people of Zimbabwe.” He’s meeting with the old colonial powers to convince them to keep in force sanctions which “the people of Zimbabwe” hate.

Albon says It's difficult to see this as anything but a major setback for democracy in Zimbabwe. Even if Tsvangirai is not charged with treason, the opponents to democratic reforms have won a significant victory. First, popular support for Tsvangirai and the MDC will suffer due to Mugabe's inevitable smear campaign, including the attorney general's "investigation."

Eager responds, "These are three remarkable sentences. For one thing, they define democracy not as a process or as a relationship between a people and its government, but as the political fortunes of a single man and his party. For another, they attribute Tsvangirai’s potential loss of popular support not to his actions, but to the fact that they have come to light. Finally, the idea that it is entirely right and proper for a leader to lose public support when he lies to his people and conspires with foreign powers to maintain sanctions that those people hate is apparently completely lost on the article’s author.

Second, the Prime Minister might be forced to take positions in opposition to the international community to avoid accusation of being a foreign corroborator.

Another remarkable sentence. It would take a long while to unpack all of the ugly assumptions behind the idea that heeding the “international community” rather than the opinions of the citizenry represents a victory for democracy. In the interest of brevity, let me just say that it gets my spider senses tingling to see the desires of countries like the Netherlands, Britain and the U.S. defined as “democracy” in an African context."

Eager ends his piece by asking rhetorically,“isn’t Mugabe a terrible man?”  by answering “of course...but but still just a blip on the historical screen.”

I found Eager spot on in everyone of his points until this last one, which I must disagree with slightly. Mugabe has certainly done terrible things and is a much feared despot in the country he rules, but few westerners, especially of the white variety, have understood that another part of him is that his defenses of some of his most controversial actions, such as the wholesale taking of white-owned farms, have had a huge appeal in Zimbabwe even amongst many who would rather he was gone. He is a repressive despot who also deeply understands the deep resentments and yearnings of the African and black world at their humiliations at the hands of the white western world.

Mugabe has been brilliant at articulating and exploiting to sidetrack (partially successfully) western criticism of him as entirely to be expected from a part of the world that he explains as benefiting from and sympathizing with the entrenched racial-colonial order of privilege that he says he is fighting on behalf of his people. It is this that he says has earned him the wrath of the US, Britain and the rest of the western world. Certainly from my vantage point there seems some truth to this, especially in Britain where kith and kin sympathies for Zimbabwe's former white farmers are particularly strong and antipathy to Mugabe is as a result also particularly strong. Mugabe may be a nasty character, but the US and Britain seem to have no trouble cozying up to many despots that are as bad or worse than Mugabe but considered to be 'theirs' in a way Mugabe isn't.

So while Mugabe has become an old-fashioned despot who has also brought much economic suffering to his people, Tsvangirai's troubles in being painted as a western lackey carry considerable political baggage weight in a part of the world where the west has neither always nor consistently stood on the side of the rights of the Africans. Just because Mugabe is paranoid and cynical about the real reasons for western support of Tsvangirai doesn't mean his paranoia and cynicism aren't justified!

My slight disagreement with Eager is that while 86-year old Mugabe is indeed just a man who will soon exit the scene, he has touched an African and black core that few African leaders, democratic or despotic, have dared do in the name of giving their people more than just 'flag independence.' In this regard I think he has changed the thinking of Zimbabweans about what nationhood does and should mean for them in a way that will long outlive him.

Even if Tsvangirai becomes president one day, he will likely live in the shadow of this part of Mugabe's legacy and his tenure will in part be measured by his attitude to issues of African 'empowerment.' This is a genie that Mugabe may not have released, but he certainly nurtured and exploited it, and it cannot be put back in the bottle. Zimbabweans certainly want the kind of democracy and freedom that Mugabe has increasingly denied them. But I don't believe there would be widespread support in gaining them at the cost of going back to the deeply racially skewed old economic order that Mugabe took on, and that is responsible for his depiction in the western media as an almost supernatural demon as much as for any 'democracy deficit.'

It would not at all be inaccurate to describe Mugabe as a brilliant demagogue, able to justify his repression and failures by making counterpoints against his local and international opponents that ring true. But more importantly, he does so by tackling some of the very real grievances of Africans about their losses at the hands of western colonialism that few other African leaders have dared to do, and that it is assumed Tsvangirai is too beholden to western interests to dare continue to champion if he becomes president. So while to most westerners Mugabe is a straight-up 'terrible man,' case closed; to many Africans (and other non-westerners) he is a more mixed, nuanced entity.

The biggest criticism of Mugabe even by those who admire his seeking to 'empower' the people with farm expropriations and other actions is that they have actually impoverished the country in the last decade since they began. But even in this regard, his supporters point to a slow recovery based on new diamond discoveries and the gradually, selectively burgeoning agriculture that is now developing under tens of thousands of small and medium-sized,  recently 'empowered' farmers. To his supporters the fact that the recovery is happening despite continuing western hostility to him and that it is happening in a radically re-ordered economy in which African influence and involvement is now much wider even if not yet deep, is actually vindication of his radical reforms. To these people, it is better to have a despotic but African-empowering Mugabe than a 'democratic' (or merely western-approved) Tsvangirai who 'gives the country back to the colonialists.'

There are obviously many holes that can be made in these arguments that to the average reader will sound like mere excuses for Mugabe's 'terribleness.' But rather than defenses of him, these points are meant to try to show why as controversial as Mugabe is, he is certainly not universally seen as merely a tyrant in regions of the world that have not always or even frequently experienced the west as benevolent and 'democratic' to them.                          

The point is that all the standard western criticisms of Mugabe have counter-points that are passionately believed by perhaps as many people as those who believe that Mugabe is no more than simply the "terrible man" of Eager's description.

Similarly, while Tsvangirai enjoys perhaps widespread sympathy in the west, the views of him in many other parts of the world including in the rest of Africa is more muted, respecting him for taking on an overstaying former liberator-turned despot, but also suspicious of his motives and his associations. The 'west' is in many ways widely admired in Africa, but for an African politician to be seen to be a lackey of that west is very heavy political ballast on a continent where colonial oppression is still in the recent past of the collective memory.

As for whether a president Tsvangirai and his MDC party would be in Albon's words 'Zimbabwe's greatest hopes for ...bringing democratic reforms to the country', Africans have been disappointed by so many 'democracy messiahs' (Mugabe was once one of many we have had), all that can be said about how much of a democrat he would really be is, 'let's just wait and see what he does once he gets in.' In fact on the evidence of what has been observed of how he presides over his party Tsvangirai may become another Mugabe, but one who will perhaps be more pliable and agreeable to the British and the Americans than the real thing!

Tsvangirai may yet be president of Zimbabwe one day despite his many missteps. Even with the un-flattering picture of him that emerges from the Wikileaks cables, many Zimbabweans are tired enough of Mugabe and his ZANU-PF, even if they respect them for their liberation war-era roles and even if they agree with the empowerment rhetoric which they have failed to implement successfully. Tsvangirai and his MDC, warts and all, have earned the respect of many Zimbabweans for being the first serious opposition to Mugabe, forcing him to make compromises that would have been unthinkable not so long ago. In any case, Tsvangirai and his MDC are at the moment the only viable political alternative to Mugabe and his party, and a large part of Zimbabwe is ready for change.

So in the overall scheme of things the leaked cables may not make a big difference to whether and when Tsvangirai succeeds Mugabe. But even if Tsvangirai does make president, it will be with many questions hanging over his head about whether he is his own man or in the pockets of the British and the Americans, a heavy cross that will affect his authority at home and in the region. And if ZANU-Pf without power and without Mugabe at its helm can use time in opposition to re-organize and retain its considerable liberation war-era cachet, they could yet use the perception of Tsvangirai being a weak tool of empirialists ("trying to reverse the gains of the revolution" is the catch-all Zimbabwean term) they could conceivably weaken his presidency and even eventually turn him out again, particularly if there are not quick, dramatic economic gains that go along with his perception as being embedded by the former colonizers and their friends.

In a country that experienced a long and bloody war of independence in a way most African countries didn't have to do, and whose independence is far more recent than most (1980 versus early sixties for most African countries) all these issues are not an insignificant part of the political mix of Zimbabwe in the present and the near future. Yet to those who see the situation in a surface, black and white Tsvangirai-good-democrat versus Mugabe-bad-despot way, all these nuances that help explain the difficulty of 'the crisis' and of finding lasting situations best for the country (as opposed to those preferred by the many interested foreign parties) are missed.

An example of this point is that while for many in the west the 'best' and 'preferred' solution would be a clean election (both in the sense of being 'free and fair' as well as in the sense of producing a Tsvangirai victory and Mugabe defeat), those Zimbabweans who understand that this may not be the magic bullet to their country's recent troubles and resulting current deep fissures actually prefer that new elections be put off for a while longer while things continue to (relatively) normalize under the present imperfect coalition government.            

Tsvangirai's many blunders don't absolve Mugabe of his many errors of commission in his 30 years of often brutal rule. Neither do Mugabe's many sins take away the reasons that he has become a phenomenon beyond his despotism, by stoking thoughts about the meaning of African nationhood after colonialism, and how to give that political nationhood economic teeth as well. Asking those questions and attempting to answer them even in the face of western opposition to his methods is one of the ways that his influence in Zimbabwe, Africa and much of the non-western world will likely remain even when there is also relief at his exit.

Against this mixed but certainly not all negative Mugabe legacy, the Tsvangirai who in many western eyes is 'Zimbabwe's best hope' often seems to pale into significance in comparison, further diminished by his own double-dealing with his western backers. Those foreign backers, as fervent in their support of him as in their dislike of Mugabe, ironically don't much respect him, as the Wikileaks cables show.

This will disappoint lovers of fairy tales in which the good guy wins by the last chapter, but shrewd despot Mugabe is no more evil and 'terrible' than many regular visitors to the White House and Number 10 Downing Street who have not done the unforgivable deed of dispossessing white farmers...of land that was in turn dispossessed from the Africans in the memory-time of people still alive today, not in th ancient past. And the fact that Mugabe has hung on to power far too long by means far from fair, including at the last election which if fair and free of violence would probably have Tsvangirai as the sitting president today, does not mean Tsvangirai is Zimbabwe's 'messiah' of democracy any more than Mugabe was when he won his first election in 1980 with a genuine landslide. As Eager points out in responding to Albon, the path towards democracy is a process, not an event or a person.

Zimbabwe is a fascinating, exciting but also sad political drama, but non of the actors, local or foreign, can at all simply be classified as all good or all bad guys. That is one of many reasons why this fascinating little country's problems are as deep and complicated as they are intractable.  


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