Foreign-sponsored regime-change in Libya; effects on Zimbabwe

Aug 30, 2011

Deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is not in Zimbabwe and is unlikely to seek refuge there, but his months-long, carefully foreign-orchestrated, funded and armed fall is inevitably reverberating through Zimbabwe's politics.

The connection between Gaddafi and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe has been made fairly often and frequently in the western media since the beginning of NATO's military action against Libya's former strongman. Early in the bombing campaign there were a few media suggestions that Zimbabwe was supporting Gaddafi with military personnel.

The reports didn't go any deeper than speculation, and no proof was offered or discovered of any such support. Of the African nationals who have been captured in the last week by the Gaddafi-deposing 'rebels,' none have been Zimbabwean. The initial reports were somebody's guesswork, or perhaps propaganda to suggest a link between two of the west's favorite current bogeymen, Gaddafi and Mugabe. To an already  primed western audience, it was as if to say, "look at what a truly awful character Gaddafi is if he's friends with Mugabe."

The February suggestion by UK foreign secretary William Hague that Gaddafi was on his way to Venezuela (after just days of the NATO bombing) turned out to have been one of many tidbits of misinformation which seemed released as part of psychological warfare. The world now knows how Gaddafi was very far from giving up, then or much later.

In March 'the end is near for Gaddafi' was floated again, this time with the suggestion he was headed for Zimbabwe.

“I was almost rendered speechless by the idea of him and Mugabe coming together,” (US Secretary of State Hilary) Clinton said, according to media reports. “And if the violence could be ended by his leaving, that might be a good thing.”

As with the prior rumors, this seemed to be more based on speculation than anything solid. Libya and Zimbabwe have not been unusually close, contrary to the widespread current thinking, but their governments have definitely been ideological kindred spirits. This was especially true on the issue of non-interference in their affairs by western countries critical of the two countries' governance records.

Then came the latest rumors of Gaddafi having been spotted in Harare last week, supposedly given an escape plane and a plush villa by his supposed best friend Mugabe. That speculation/propaganda has turned out to be even more amateurishly done than previous efforts to link Gaddafi and Mugabe at the end of the former's long reign.

Apart from their shared 'Africa for Africans' ideology, Gaddafi and Mugabe were amongst the very few African leaders who felt confident and unafraid to articulate it publicly. Among many other additional and more complicated reasons, these were some of the factors that made them be depicted as unusually evil in a West that has good relations with dictators just as or more ruthless than these two, but who are regarded as more pliable, better behaved towards the West; just less troublesome in general.

Libya and the Gaddafis are reported to have investments in Zimbabwe, the details of which are murky. But this was not a major factor in the speculation of how close Gaddafi and Mugabe might be. Libya had more extensive, known investments in each of several countries in eastern and western Africa than it did in Zimbabwe. The once more-than-cordial relations between the two countries had reportedly cooled in recent years.

An anonymous writer thought to be a government official close to Mugabe has suggested that Gaddafi became less 'loyal' to the African cause and drew closer to the West. He suggested Zimbabwe was one among other African countries that had helped Gaddafi bust western sanctions that were once imposed on him in the days when he was considered a supporter of terrorism. It is suggested that there was an impression in Zimbabwe government circles that Gaddafi 'sold out' in his eagerness for acceptance by a West that had once demonized him, in a way similar to how Mugabe is western-demonized today.

In March Mugabe said, "Look at what they are doing to Gaddafi. He tried to appease them by giving them access to (oil) resources, by investing money with Western financial institutions but they have turned on him,"

One of the likely effects, therefore, is that Mugabe will see Gaddafi's experience as justification for his own strong suspicions about the intentions and trustworthiness of the West. While Gaddafi astonishingly went from good relations with the West to being toppled by them in just six months, Mugabe has been under western diplomatic and economic pressure for years. The West says it is because of Mugabe's 'democracy and human rights' failings; Mugabe says it is because the West is upset at his whites-dispossessing land reform programme and general independence of speech, thought and action.

Mugabe has long lashed out at what he calls the West's 'regime change' agenda in support of his political opponents to depose him one way or another, in order 'to make Zimbabwe their colony again.' But recently the U.S. in particular has been at pains to say they do not take sides in Zimbabwe's party politics, but simply support a democratic dispensation under the country's own constitution. The European countries have been making their own statements suggesting a desire to return to at least warmer relations than the hostile cold war that has obtained for years with Mugabe's government.

However, in Libya has been fully, stunningly and undeniably on display just the kind of foreign-backed 'regime change' agenda that Mugabe has long insisted the West had plans for in Zimbabwe, through the Movement for Democratic Change party that his ZANU-PF now uneasily shares power with. While the West may be crowing with triumph over their success at deposing Gaddafi, another effect of it is to tear to pieces their regime-change sponsorship 'deniability' in countries like Zimbabwe.

Mutual interests for the West and Zimbabwe in improving relations may still carry the day, but certainly Mugabe's government will not have cordial, trustworthy relations with the West, especially after its perceived double-dealing and treachery in regards to Gaddafi in Libya.

When Libya's embassy staffers saw which way the tide had turned in Tripoli, they unsurprisingly, self-interestedly publicly threw their lot with the 'rebels' who had just deposed their old boss Gaddafi. They created a photo opportunity for themselves by being pictured replacing the Gaddafi-linked Libyan flag on their embassy building with the old/new rebel-linked one, perhaps to make themselves look good to the new rulers in Tripoli.

The embassy's first counselor said to a local paper, "Our people decided to rise against Gaddafi after 42 years of dictatorship and these events can also happen here. We know that Zimbabwe government is not comfortable with the National Transitional Council flag, but it is the reality. There is democracy now in Libya and people no longer want a ruler who stays in power for too long as what Gaddafi did. I don’t want to talk of Zimbabwean politics, but there is now democracy flowing on the continent and it can happen in any country. We need to support democratic trends… on the continent as (they are) unstoppable."

While the embassy personnel might have won brownie points with the new rulers in Tripoli with their flag gesture and statements, they created an even bigger headache for a Mugabe regime that was already unsure how to respond to events there.

Will governments like Mugabe's learn from Libya that they should ease up repression before a backlash against it consumes them? Or will the take home lesson for them be to ratchet it up restrictions instead? No doubt that is a discussion that regimes in Harare, Kampali, Kigali and many other capitals in Africa and beyond are having amongst themselves as they analyze the stunning events in Libya.

But the voluble Mugabe has previously expressed his suspicions about the genesis of the North African uprisings. Long before the fall of Gaddafi seemed imminent, when it was still Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt in turmoil, Mugabe had publicly questioned whether the protests were home grown and organic in origin, planning and execution. This suggested he preferred to believe a mainly foreign hand was behind them. Whatever was the situation in the first three countries, in Libya the clear evidence of a western role at every step will feed his worst suspicions.

Mugabe's belief in a similar role for the MDC's western backers in Zimbabwe will likely serve as a brake against any suggestions for his already paranoid government to relax its stance to demonstrations and other expressions of popular will, unless they are in his support. The reasoning would be 'we are not against expressions of democracy for our people, but we will continue to clamp down hard on the mischief-making of our enemies through their local proxies.'

In this way the continued limitation of democratic expression would not be seen as repression, but instead as defense of the country's sovereignty, which is threatened by the West sponsoring, instigating and causing troublethrough the MDC party. Mugabe has already said, 'look what they did to Gaddafi in Libya.'

The MDC itself has been very wisely quiet about the events in Libya, beyond expressing restrained opposition to the speculated idea of Zimbabwe being a possible exile home for Gaddafi. Any glee the MDC  may feel at seeing a dictator given his comeuppance must be tempered by the real domestic risks of being considered to be somehow associated with the NTC 'rebels' in Libya. Far worse would be any suggestion that the MDC saw the events in Libya as a template for what could/should happen in Zimbabwe. That would infuriate a Mugabe who is already deeply suspicious of the party's closeness to the western countries that his regime has been at loggerheads with. The MDC would not want to be seen to be tempting Mugabe's proven ruthlessness when he perceives a threat!

The Mugabe government finds itself in a very awkward position in regards to Libya. Relations with Gaddafi were no longer as close as many of today's clueless Gaddafi-in-Zimbabwe pundits imagine. But neither were they hostile, and Gaddafi was certainly admired for his independent line, and there was lingering gratitude for his assistance during the worst of Zimbabwe's fuel shortages.

That many Libyans were aggrieved by the way Gaddafi personalized the state has been admitted by Mugabe. However, the grudging admission of the need for reform in that country's system of governance is drowned out by the much greater resentment of the West's bulldozing over any hint of persuading/forcing Gaddafi to carry it out (as perhaps naively proposed by the African Union) by toppling him.

The schizophrenia over how to react to the changes in Libya is evident in the reaction of the Mugabe government to the defection of that country's embassy staff from Gaddafi to the NTC, even though they really had no choice. The Mugabe government has not recognized the NTC as the new Libyan government. It stiffly said the Libyan ambassador would have to leave if he no longer stood for the authority that appointed him.

This may be a strictly, pedantically correct position, but it makes the Mugabe government look churlish and more supportive of its deposed 'friend' Gaddafi than the aspirations of the Libyan people. Foreign-backed or not, there is also little doubt that many Libyans were tired of Gaddafi . The Mugabe government has chosen to be decidedly out of step with this reality, perhaps because of the too-close parallels to the situation in Zimbabwe! Recognizing the NTC would be for the Mugabe government uncomfortably endorsing the kind of foreign-backed regime change which it fears the West is trying to achieve against it through the MDC. So not surprisingly, regime-survival considerations beat any sympathy for the plight of the Libyans under the deposed Gaddafi.

At least for now, it looks like most of the Libyans are happier to be rid of Gaddafi than they are concerned that it was effectively done by foreign powers. Governments like Mugabe's seem more upset about and frightened of the foreign-backing of the regime change than they are pleased for the people who have long chaffed under the repressive boot of their pal Gaddafi. Therein lies the reason why many of these regimes will not learn the lessons from the Libya situation that many other observers see as being crystal clear: begin democratic reform lest you suffer the same fate. Some of those regimes instead take the attitude that to avoid suffering Gaddafi's fate, they should be more wary of the foreign regime change agents so prominently on display in Libya, as well as more watchful of their local conduits.You can be pretty sure that the authorities in Harare will be extra vigilant, especially about public protests, and about the links/communications between the  MDC and foreign governments.

A top military official has dismissed any prospects of 'a Libya' happening in Zimbabwe. And the circumstances are indeed very different. Among the many differences is that Zimbabwe is a functioning democracy, though far from perfect, in a way Gaddafi's Libya never was. Zimbabwe also doesn't have oil, and does not have the other burdens of being in Europe's 'back yard' like Libya does.

However, many Zimbabweans are politically and economically disaffected with the Mugabe government, and it has also simply been in power longer than most populations have a tolerance for. So as different as the circumstances are, a popular uprising may be unlikely but not out of the question, especially if 'helped' from abroad as happened in Libya, and as the Mugabe government suspects Britain and the particular would be inclined to help the MDC to do in Zimbabwe.

So despite the nonchalant public 'Libya can never happen here' attitude, it is a safe bet that the events in that country are being studied very carefully in official circles in Harare, with a view to thwarting similar events.

While there are no grounds for a Libya-style military operation by what Mugabe calls Zimbabwe's 'enemies,' he has often mentioned that he believes the West is bent on a multi-pronged regime-change policy of supporting not only the MDC, but various other 'civil society organizations' seen as hostile to his government. Many of these are active in preparing the playing field for next year's general election to be more even than in the past. It is just before and during those elections that the Mugabe government is likely to be most paranoid about and vigilant against renewed and redoubled 'regime change machinations by our enemies and their local puppets.'

The Mugabe government's real domestic response to the events in Libya is likely to gradually unfold over the next few months as it studies them, and as the currently uncertain post-Gaddafi aftermath in Tripoli becomes clearer. The counter-strategy will likely be fully on display during the next, soon-to-come election. ZANU-PF is far from confident about doing well in a free and fair election that considerable regional and other international pressure will make very hard to avoid, given the messy, controversial conduct of the previous election. The party's reduced hold on the loyalty of the electorate, the continued strength of the MDC and any 'regime change machinations' of the MDC's backers will mean ZANU-PF will be especially worried, and especially wary.

No Al Jazeera, UK Daily Mail and UK Sun, asylum-seeking Gaddafi is not in Zimbabwe and is unlikely to ever end up there. But there is no doubt that the manner of Gaddafi's demise will likely cast a long shadow over Zimbabwe's politics for some time to come.


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