Why Mugabe is such an effective thorn in the West's side

Dec 2, 2010

Robert Mugabe is many things to many people.

In the western world, particularly Britain, he is the devil incarnate. His biggest perceived sin has been to kick thousands of white farmers of mostly British stock out of farming, causing what is lovingly referred to as the 'collapse' of Zimbabwe's agriculture and economy, a mantra that is being to look increasingly at odds with a recovering  economy. He is charged with a host of 'secondary' sins against the majority of Zimbabweans, including 30 years of often repressive, strong arm-rule; leading a corrupt elite and so on.

But in much of Africa and the non-western world he is admired for standing up to the perceived hypocrisies of the west. Even where his negatives are admitted, they are perceived to pale in comparison to his being one of a very few African leaders to be fearless and articulate in expressing the deeply held but often frustrated sentiments of recently-colonized people the world over. 

There has been an unprecedented western media onslaught against both Mugabe the person as well as against the nationhood of Zimbabwe. Any problem, any ill of the country's is celebrated and lovingly replayed in the western media, particularly Britain's, as a sign of what is depicted as the almost supernatural evil genius of Mugabe. This demonization of Mugabe has often gone so far over the top that it has in some cases had the opposite of its intended effect. Those who live in or regularly visit Zimbabwe will have been startled at how the country depicted as 'collapsed' and wracked by common violence is actually largely functional even if below its own potential, and largely peaceful even if mostly on its non-political surface.

Zimbabwe has many deep wounds and problems, but not any more than many other countries in the world, and arguably less than many other countries that are not considered to be in perpetual crisis as Zimbabwe is depicted to be in certain media. But then again there are not many of those other countries whose president is accused of the kinds of sins against the established international order of how things are supposed to be done as Mugabe is! So at least in the western world, Mugabe's particular types of 'sins' are considered to be particularly egregious and unforgivable.

Mugabe has always had a violent, authoritarian streak, and once openly boasted about having 'degrees in violence.' It is now widely known and often reported how his army massacred thousands of Zimbabweans in a brutal campaign against so-called 'dissidents' in southern Zimbabwe a few years into independence in the 1980s. It turns out that certain western powers who pose as champions of human rights were at the time aware of these then largely publicly-unknown atrocities, but at the time the deeply anglophilic Mugabe was a good African who was their man.

Then many years later he in a few years turned decades-old land ownership patterns upside down, stripping thousands of large farms from their white occupiers, and causing an ensuing uproar, not least in Britain. Overnight the once British-admired (knighthood by the queen of England, British and other western honorary degrees, frequent visits to the UK for shopping, etc) Mugabe suddenly turned into a very, very bad African indeed.

His image in most of the western world is now of an ogre with the power to do great evil, his infamy compounded many times over by the fact that despite many efforts against him by local foes, sometimes with the backing of powerful foreign backers from guess-where, he continues to rule Zimbabwe. But worse than that, he remains unrepentant and unchastened about the sins he is accused of, including and especially land expropriations. It is almost unprecedented for an African ruler to be so reviled and opposed by the west and continue in power like Mugabe has done, making him graduate from merely bad African to 'superbad' African. To some that means he is very very bad indeed, but to others his being superbad in certain circles makes him a towering hero.

Mugabe's propaganda defense against the western onslaught has been mixed. He has often spoiled his claim of 'they are out to get me because they can't control me and because I want to empower my people' by frequent and senseless displays of brutality against those same people. For the non-political, much of life in Zimbabwe is fairly 'normal' and peaceful even if it has been economically very difficult in particularly the last decade. Yet an air of state menace also hangs over much of the country.

If Mugabe has and continues to score many own-goals, so do the many powerful media, institutions and  countries arrayed against him.

Past UK and US leaders Tony Blair and George Bush's governments were harsh and unrelenting in their criticism of Mugabe, for everything from his economic policies to his treatment of opponents. Yet as Mugabe has not been shy to point out, neither of these two men were particularly qualified to point fingers at him.

The latest example of how Mugabe has pointed this out:

Zimbabwe President Mugabe Accuses ICC of Hypocrisy in Al-Bashir Case

It is not unusual for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to lash into Western leaders in his public interventions, but this week he expanded his field of fire to include the International Criminal Court which he accused of double standards.

Speaking at a summit of African and European leaders in Tripoli, Mr. Mugabe asked why the ICC was not bringing charges against former US President George W. Bush and ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair for the many civilian lives lost in the invasion of Iraq instead of prosecuting Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir for his alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes in western Darfur region.

Mr. Bashir stayed away from the summit after European leaders objected to his presence, but Mr. Mugabe charged Western hypocrisy. The African Union has also objected to Bashir’s indictment, asking the United Nations to quash it.

How does one fault this point of Mugabe's? Given what is now known about the false pretext for going to war in Iraq by Bush and Blair, and the costs to Iraq as well as to the US and UK of the still unfinished war, how indeed are Bush and Blair any less indictable by the ICC than is Sudan's Bashir?

The validity of Mugabe's point on this score is objectively correct, weakened only by the fact that Bashir does appear to be a nasty fellow, as is arguably Mugabe in many ways. None of these four men have 'clean hands' by any means, so why  are Bush and Blair's huge errors of commission any less ICC-indictable than Bashir's or Mugabe's?  

A weak attempt to counter Mugabe's latest outburst by a British minister shows just why the old despot has been able to be such an effective foil to the west's efforts against him.

Take Mugabe 'with a pinch of salt', says minister

New minister for Africa Henry Bellingham said that Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe should be taken "with a pinch of salt" and called for credible elections in the country Mugabe has ruled for 30 years.

Bellingham, who was appointed Africa minister in May when Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition government came to power, said Britain will use its influence in southern Africa to push for free and fair elections in Zimbabwe.

Bellingham was speaking the day after Mugabe asked leaders at a summit of African and European Union states why former British prime minister Tony Blair and former US president George W. Bush had not been indicted for war crimes like Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

"He does come up with comments from time to time, doesn't he?" Bellingham said. "I think one just has to take him with a pinch of salt in that particular case."

The limp-wristed official British response, in which Bellingham could not offer any objective counter-point to the substance of Mugabe's charge about Bush and Blair's ICC-indictability, is an example of why despite Mugabe's frequent shooting of himself in the foot by his most repressive actions, the western diplomatic and media onslaught against him has been largely ineffective. More than that, it appears to be increasingly counter-productive.

Mugabe's effective response is not to claim to be blameless but to instead say,  'you (UK, US, etc) who accuse me and others (e.g. Bashir) of this and that are in fact guilty of far worse wrongs!' And in this particular example he used to make that point, the west is caught flat-footed, as shown by Bellingham's weak-kneed comeback.

In this particular round of the great Mugabe vs. Britain propaganda war, it's Mugabe 1, Britain 0.


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