If Muammar Gaddafi were to be exiled in Zimbabwe

Jul 7, 2011

A Russian diplomat makes a trip to Harare, meets Robert Mugabe, makes some general comments about possible conditions for the stepping down from power of Libya's tenacious Muammar Gaddafi. Just these tidbits of  information were all that was needed for some to conclude arrangements were being made for Gaddafi to find an exile home in Zimbabwe. How likely is this and what would be some of the implications for Zimbabwe?

Since the Libyan civil war began several months ago there has been  much wild speculation, and some outright propaganda, about a Zimbabwean role. Some said it was in the form of a group of Zimbabwean mercenaries, others that the government had sent troops and logistical support. There was not a shred of even merely rumoured evidence that was cited for any of these reports and they eventually died down.

But Mugabe has made it clear he takes a very dim view of the 'NATO' role in pulverising Libya to dust in the name of 'defending Libyan civilians from massacre by Gaddafi.' He has expressed regret that the African Union joined in supporting the UN resolution that has been the cover for the continuing western military action in Libya, an action no one any longer pretends is to protect civilians against attack. It has grown into an openly declared campaign to remove Gaddafi from power. It is hardly surprising that Mugabe would be fiercely against 'regime change' conducted by the same western governments he accuses of having a similar agenda in Zimbabwe. 

Russia has also been critical of the escalation of the western military campaign in Libya, and has sought to mediate an end to the conflict. Those who immediately concluded the Russian diplomat visiting Harare had come to arrange Gaddafi's living arrangements chose to ignore that he was also visiting Angola, Sudan, and Ethiopia.

How likely is it that Gaddafi could end up in exile in Zimbabwe?

If asked the Mugabe government would probably be open to accommodating him, as controversial and likely unpopular as the decision would be. Libya certainly helped Zimbabwe during some difficult times over the years, particularly with fuel during severe shortages. While the two governments have enjoyed good relations over their generally similar strongly independent-of-the-west foreign policy stances, there is no natural or cultivated closeness between the two peoples. There will certainly be ideologues in Zimbabwe who would welcome the 'anti-imperialist' symbolism of hosting Gaddafi but it is unlikely that there would be widespread support for it.

Gaddhafi has ruled with an arrogant contempt for Libyans that is very similar to Mugabe's violent strong-arm rule. That arrogance means Mugabe's government would not pay any mind to what Zimbabweans' thought about a decision to grant Gaddafi asylum, but it is also why ordinary citizens would probably be from lukewarm to opposed. Gaddafi is too much a reminder of many of the things Zimbabweans have long resented about their rulers, except that Gaddafi has had access to oil wealth to mix his repression with a type of widespread Libyan material prosperity that would be the envy of the majority of impoverished Zimbabweans.     

In granting Gaddafi asylum Mugabe would be openly throwing his support with a deposed dictator, rather than with the Libyan people. He is probably past caring about this, but for many of his detractors this would be confirmation of what he has become: a one time peoples' hero and 'liberator' who now finds it easier to justify support for an oppressor than for the people the despot lorded over.

There is in international diplomacy the long established tradition of asylum for a deposed ruler being granted in another country as part of that country's contribution to peace-building in the overthrown ruler's country. But there is no way that Mugabe's government could convincingly sell this as its motivation for giving Gaddafi refuge. Mugabe has quite clearly come out sounding more sceptical/cynical of the popular uprisings in North Africa than sympathetic to them. For him it is more likely a western plot than genuine popular disenchantment. It would not be credible for his regime to explain asylum for Gaddafi as his government's contribution to the successful post-Gaddafi moving on of Libya. In Zimbabwe and in most places elsewhere, the gesture would likely be regarded as simply one brutal dictator doing a favour for another.    

Harare already hosts Ethiopia's 'butcher of Addis Ababa,' Mengistu Haile Mariam. So there is a precedent for the Mugabe government giving a comfortable exile to bad guys with the blood of thousands of their fellow citizens on their hands. In Mengistu's case it was justified by his support to then liberation movement led by Mugabe. With the granting of Gaddafi asylum Zimbabwe would have sealed its reputation as the African country of choice for blood-splattered dictators who ruled their countries as if they were their personal fiefdoms.

But would Gaddafi even want to spend the rest of his life in Harare? It seems unlikely. With deep pockets one can live a very good material life in Zimbabwe, but it would seem to lack many of the qualities that are known to be important to Gaddafi. He loves the desert, and enjoys spending nights in a tent on the sands. He is deeply Muslim while Zimbabwean is deeply, conservatively Christianised. The number of Arabs in Zimbabwe is negligible. So there are many reasons to suspect that Zimbabwe may not be his country of choice if he were convinced to start looking for alternative homes.      

Of course he may not be able to pick and choose a favoured destination at leisure. Europe and the US seem out of the question given how their role in getting him to this tight point in his long career. He is said to not have many friends amongst fellow Arab despots he has often mocked. Many of the African countries that have sizeable Arab and/or Muslim populations are either in their own turmoil or their governments have 'defected' to supporting the Libyan groups working for his downfall. So he may have to consider Zimbabwe even if in different circumstances it would not have been amongst his top choices.

But Gaddafi would also have to consider the fact that Mugabe's days are numbered, at least by Mother Nature and Father Time, if not also by the very real possibility of being humiliatingly ousted in an election. Even if Mugabe's ZANU-PF continues in power after his demise, Gaddafi would have to consider whether he would still be as welcome. And if the MDC party that Mugabe has harassed for all its existence took over, they are unlikely to be welcoming, sympathetic hosts to a man who has given his own opponents a torrid time. 

Weary Zimbabweans would have to accept their country being considered wayward and notorious for yet another reason in addition to many others. Mengistu has accepted the need to be quiet and un-obstrusive in his Harare exile but it is difficult to imagine the loud and brash Gaddafi doing the same by lying low. Even the Mugabe regime as official hosts with little concern for the sensibilities of the locals may find him to be a hot potato of a guest, which doesn't mean that they wouldn't agree to host him.

There are all sorts of reasons, other than an exile home for Gaddafi, for a Russian diplomat to be discussing the embattled dictator and what to do about the stalemated situation in Libya with African leaders like Mugabe. For example, they could be pondering a symbolic censure of the now beyond-bounds NATO military action at the UN. But clearly neither this nor any of the other possible subjects of discussion are as sexy as speculating on a Harare exile home for Gaddafi, no matter how unlikely that is for many reasons.

Related: The Gaddafi in Zimbabwe Hoax


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