A critique of Rob Sobhani’s article, ‘Obama’s Zimbabwe moment’

Jan 15, 2012

Another Western observer of ‘the Zimbabwe crisis’ has the solution neatly figured out. Actually, for Rob Sobhani, it is merely a ‘Mugabe crisis’ and resolving it is easy. All that needs to be done is to convince Nobel Peace Prize winner, US president and famed global problem solver, one Barack Obama, to step in and wave his magic wand-problem solved. Sobhani’s astonishing, entertaining article is worth a critique.

Sobhani’s article appeared in the Huffington Post in October 2011 but four months later is just as much of a hilarious screed as it was then. Actually it may go down in posterity as one of the most bizarre of the hysterical articles written by the many Mugabe-phobes in the Western world. Sobhani manages to out-do even the right wing British papers who go apoplectic at the mere mention of the name ‘Mugabe,’ so egregious and unforgivable are his particular brand of sins considered to be in that part of the world.

Sobhani takes up a good part of his article cataloging some of Mugabe’s failures and some of his best known excesses. He comes out swinging right from the start.

“America's first African-American president has a historic chance to deal with one of Africa's most vicious despots -- Robert Mugabe. Mugabe has imposed economic, financial, social and environmental ruin on his nation, and it is time to call an end to his reign of destruction. Since his election in 1980, Mugabe, now seventy-nine, has created a virtual "how-to" manual for national destruction.”

Mugabe, in the unlikely event that he reads the Huffington Post, would have been flattered to have seven years shaved off his actual, declared age, A minor error perhaps, but getting this well-known, easily checkable detail wrong already makes a reader begin to wonder about Sobhani ‘s depth of knowledge about the subject he takes on.

Sobhani doesn’t bother to even skim over Mugabe’s early post-Independence (1980) glory days, when he was lauded even in the United States and across the Western world, where many now consider him ‘one of Africa's most vicious despots.’ The many social and economic gains of that early post-independence era for which Mugabe was internationally showered with accolades are dismissed by Sobhani with ‘despite some advances in literacy rates.’

Mugabe’s successes cannot and should not expunge his failures and wrongs. Equally, it is historically and intellectually dishonest for writers like Sobhani, even when addressing audiences they know will not have the background of the complicated reality of the actual situation, to write as if ‘vicious despotism’ is the sum total of what Mugabe is. This is a lazy but easy caricature of Mugabe because of how he particularly riles Western emotions like no other African leader has done, but it gives Sobhani’s article a shrill, biased character from its earliest paragraphs.

When a distant foreigner uses language and imagery which even Mugabe’s many Zimbabwean critics would find extreme, one suspects that the anti-Mugabeism being authored has little or nothing to do with concern for the welfare of Zimbabweans, and everything to do with the other reasons why Mugabe is such an emotive personality and subject for many Westerners. Hint: it isn’t depriving Zimbabweans of ‘human rights and democracy.’

Mugabe is an autocrat. He certainly bears responsibility for the suffering of many Zimbabweans, and he surely has the blood of many people on his hands. He is also likely no worse in these respects than many other past and present autocrats, many of who have been and are on good terms with the US. It is therefore not particularly Mugabe’s brand of autocracy that makes so many Westerners see red over him.

Sobhani has no desire at all to show Mugabe in the indeed autocratic but also nuanced complexity of the man. He writes, ”Mugabe's consolidation of power continued throughout the 1980s, during which time 60 percent of the white population of Zimbabwe emigrated.” Without his actually saying so, the impression a non-knowledgeable reader would have got from the overall portrayal of Mugabe by Sobhani is that this emigration was pushed for or engineered by Mugabe.

Yet the Mugabe who spent decades in prison for the liberation of his country from a self-declared racist regime came to power in 1980 preaching racial reconciliation, to the utter amazement and relief of the West. This was a key reason Mugabe was so flattered and lionized in the West in those early days. The cream of the white community then, large-scale farmers, had it just as good as or better in the first decade of Independence under Mugabe’s rule than they had before.

The early 1980s were also the time of the infamous Matabeleland massacres by the army, but the deaths of thousands of black Zimbabweans then was not enough to have Mugabe any less approved of by the West as a ‘good African.’ He only became a ‘vicious dictator’ and bad African much later, when he did the unforgivable by ‘counter-grabbing’ land from white farmers that had been first grabbed from Africans during colonial conquest.

While killing his fellow blacks might have been considered by our democracy and human rights-loving Western friends as a little naughty of Mugabe, clearly interfering with the ‘rule of law’ and disrespecting ‘property rights’ by dispossessing white farmers was going too far! Who the hell did Mugabe think he was to do this despite Western shock, horror and strenuous disapproval ?! From that point on Mugabe became unforgivably evil and ‘’autocratic’ to his former Western ‘friends’and flatterers, when he was really no more autocratic than he had been for a long time, just not against whites.

As with many other Western writers, Sobhani writes about the worst years of Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, up to the year 2008, with great relish. Example: “By the end of 2008, inflation skyrocketed to a mind-boggling 231,000,000 percent, up from 7,000 percent in 2007.”

Not a word about how since then, inflation has come down to the single digits and there have been many other modest but important indices of economic normalization from the chaotic years. It was necessary for Sobhani to mention these things to put things in their proper context. But Sobhani’s sole goal is to use facts and context only in how they show Mugabe in the worst possible light. So context is fine in pointing out how under white farmers Zimbabwe was ‘the breadbasket of Africa,’ but now that Mugabe chased them off, the country “is a net importer of foodstuffs, with the European Union and United States providing emergency food relief as humanitarian aid on a regular basis.”

But context is not necessary if it shows that since those awful days, inflation has come down, the economy has stabilized and even agriculture is showing signs of recovery (under black farmers, gasp!). One would think a reader might find it useful and might want to know how things are since the 2008 example Sobhani provides, but no, that kind of context does not serve the purpose of the article.

But Sobhani has succeeded by now at showing his hand. The reader is supposed to understand what an irredeemably bad guy Mugabe is, and all is fair to reveal or hide for Sobhani to make this point.

“The destruction of the agricultural economy has been savage, as fertile farmland once cultivated by trained white farmers has been forcibly relocated to black former combatants, who are untrained in agricultural land management, as compensation for military service. Production has fallen to less than half of its estimated capacity and fertile land lies fallow due to neglect.”

As Sobhani no doubt is aware, the use of the word ‘savage’ in reference to Africa/Africans is deeply loaded historically. Its use reveals more about Sobhani than he might have intended. In a Zimbabwe whose problems have an undeniable racial component, attracting strong passions far and wide, perhaps it reveals as much as Sobhani intended about the real source of his rage against Mugabe.

What Sobhani writes about Zimbabwe’s agricultural decline is all factually true, of course. However, speaking of context that is useful to providing a full historical understanding of the complexity of the Zimbabwe crisis, it is interesting that at the time of the colonial land grab from Africans, the grabbed land was likewise given to white ‘former combatants who are untrained in agricultural land management, as compensation for military service!’ History is merely repeating itself, with the roles of the blacks and whites now reversed.

This is very relevant to mention, though inconvenient for a Westerner of the disposition of Sobhani, because it helps to explain why the Mugabe who to him and other Westerners is clearly and only a ‘vicious dictator,’ is to many Zimbabweans and Africans a towering hero despite his many errors and sins. What Sobhani and others especially loath Mugabe for is precisely the same thing others of a different complexion, colonial historical experience and world view believe to be Mugabe’s finest hour! What seems ‘black and white’ to Sobhani and many Westerners is much more nuanced to many Africans. All this is lost on Sobhani in his Mugabe-vicious-dictator screed.

Mugabe may indeed be autocratic and he may indeed be vicious, but it is also important to understand why there is no particular Zimbabwean groundswell for white-led ‘multinational coalitions’ to come and ‘liberate them.’ Sobhani is clearly passionate in his anti-Mugabeism, but seems hopelessly out of his depth in understanding the historical origins and many present dimensions of the ‘Zimbabwe crisis,’ which go far beyond Mugabe’s autocracy.

What is the result of Mugabe’s ‘more radical and more comprehensive approach’ to how to destroy a nation (paraphrasing an early line in Sobhani’s article)? “A nation that fails to function on any level -- economic, political or cultural,” according to Sobhani.

This is so absurdly, breathtakingly, nonsensically over the top and just plain false that one almost gasps. Sobhani attempts to build up a case for Mugabe having ‘destroyed a nation’ by citing Zimbabwe’s great economic and other problems, but then quickly, astonishingly and thoroughly destroys his own credibility by getting carried away by painting a blatantly false picture of the Zimbabwean reality.

How Zimbabwe in fact remained functional even during greatly distressing times is a fascinating story, but obviously of no interest to Sobhani. But the Zimbabwe of October 2011 was an even more different, thoroughly ‘functional’ if expensive place from that of the worst, now past crisis years that he clearly prefers to dwell on to make his point. Anyone who does any bit of travelling in Africa and much of the developing world would be astonished at how ‘crisis-torn Zimbabwe’ is much more functional and calm than many countries not thought of/portrayed as being troubled. But shhhh, don’t tell that to Sobhani or the ‘international media;’ that wouldn’t fit their pre-conceived outlook.

Zimbabwe and its citizens still has many dire problems, but to describe it as dysfunctional in the apocalyptic way Sobhani does removes any last elements of doubt about whether he can be rational and calmly convincing in making his anti-Mugabe argument. It appears he can’t, and is willing to resort to easily disprovable hyperbole in the emotion of his strong feelings against Mugabe.

Sobhani’s conclusion of the imagined utterly dysfunctional state of the country: “It highlights the lasting effects of decolonization -- limited Western influence on the continent and a reluctance by African leaders to criticize their own.”

Not only is Sobhani out of touch with Zimbabwe’s present, he seems out of touch with its pre-decolonization past. When ‘Western influence on the continent’ was at its peak, it was hardly used for the best interests of the Africans! The West, the US included, does not have a particularly honourable pre-Independence history in Zimbabwe. Several US administrations largely sympathized with the then ruling white minority Mugabe was fighting against. If Western influence in countries like Zimbabwe today is ‘limited,’ it is significantly because of cynicism about its past role. It is that past role that explains the relatively limited influence in Zimbabwe, not ‘the lasting effects of decolonization.’

As for ‘a reluctance by African leaders to criticize their own,” this is partly not wanting to be seen to be on the side of today’s self-appointed arbiters and defenders of ‘human rights and democracy,’ who yesterday had no trouble cozying up to the oppressors of Africans.

But the silence of African leaders is also self-serving. Autocrats who are considered good boys because they are Western-servile (Yoweri Museveni, Uganda; Paul Kagame, Rwanda; Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia, to name a few) have no moral or any other kind of authority ‘to criticize their own.’ All they can do is revel in relief that their autocracy is approved of and/or ignored in Western capitals and by the likes of Sobhani, who curiously are much more concerned about the ‘democracy and human rights’ of Zimbabweans than they are of Ugandans, Rwandans or Ethiopians. Should we say. ‘Jeez, lucky us Zimbabweans,‘ or should we be suspicious of this implied ‘special’ concern for our well-being by distant foreigners?

Alright, let’s cut out all the crap and quickly solve this easy, little bitty crisis. How? Sobhani has it all figured out: “This can be accomplished if President Obama takes the lead in a multinational coalition to oust Robert Mugabe from power in Zimbabwe.”

It’s the old Libya-style regime change! At the time of Sobhani’s article Gaddafi was still hiding in the sand-dunes of Libya. The Obama-led ‘multinational coalition’ bombing campaign to oust him, collaterally also laying much of the country to waste in the process, was still in progress. If Sobhani considers that the Mugabe-led Zimbabwe of today ‘fails to function on any level,’ one wonders how he would characterize the mess that is the multinational coalition-liberated current Libya.

Even if there were unanimity in Zimbabwe that Mugabe was ‘one of Africa's most vicious despots,’ which there clearly isn’t, even opponents of Mugabe might panic at the application of Obama’s Libya-style ‘peacemaking and liberation’ in their country. Look at Afghanistan and Iraq, where Obama-style ‘liberation’ is underway, and it might be argued by some (obviously misguided!) folks that those don’t provide much encouragement for Zimbabweans’ confidence in the global problem-solving skills of the Obama that Sobhani  wants to ‘sort out’ Zimbabwe.

Sobhani thoughtfully, generously gives flesh to the bones of his idea of the aftermath of his proposed Obama-led initiative to do Zimbabweans a nice favour by ‘liberating’ them of Mugabe.

“I propose that an international conference be convened… to agree on terms that would define the transition from dictatorship to democracy, “ writes Sobhani. Another inconvenient truth for Mugabe-phobes is that while Zimbabwe is indeed ruled autocratically, it is also a thriving if constrained democracy. The prime minister and a good chunk of the cabinet are from the party that is trying to depose Mugabe from power. Mugabe’s party and the ‘opposition’ prime minister’s have about an equal number of seats in parliament. There is a small but thriving, hyper-critical private press. Elections are regularly held ever five years.

All these are important elements of a democratic state which US/Western allies like Saudi Arabia and many others do not even pretend to have. Sobhani and his purportedly Zimbabwe-loving ilk do not write articles asking for multinational regime-regime coalitions against the ‘vicious dictators’ who run many of these Western-servile governments that have no white farmers to ‘re-grab’ land from!

It must also be mentioned that actual, practising democracy that Zimbabwe undeniably, objectively is, it is also a deeply flawed one. Much of the form/shell of democracy is in place, but one way Mugabe can be said to be ‘autocratic’ is how brilliantly and completely he thwarts the spirit and full implementation of the edifice of democracy that exists. As contradictory as it sounds and is, Zimbabwe is both autocratic and democratic, even if it does not serve the purpose of the likes Sobhani and others to see this.

The best and most consistent that Sobhani could be would be is to say, ‘Mugabe is an autocrat like many others the US has good relations with, but he is unacceptable to us because he is not an autocrat under our control and we can’t stand how that unacceptably defiant bloody African got away with taking down the white farmers.’ That would be much less hypocritical than pretending that the Western hysteria about Mugabe is about ‘human rights and democracy' for the poor oppressed Zimbabweans, which is bullshit.

Showing a quirky sense of humour that might be lost on many Zimbabweans, Sobhani proposes that his mooted Zimbabwe post-Mugabe regime-change conference “could take place in the Liberated Libya (a north African state sending a message to the south).”

At this point one begins to wonder if perhaps Sobhani wrote the whole article tongue-in-cheek, as it gets more and more bizarre. Is he serious about any of what he writes in this article, or is it all for a laugh? If he does mean to be taken seriously, does he really think there are a significant number of Zimbabweans who would find his arguments convincing?

It turns out that Sobhani is ahead of you, Zimbabwean reader. He anticipated that the bloody Zimbabweans might not appreciate what the ‘multinational coalition’ might be trying to do for them. So Sobhani proposes that the Mugabe-oppressed Zimbabweans actually step aside and not have much of a role at all in the international conference that would be convened in Liberated Libya to solve their ‘problem,’ which to him is clearly, solely Mugabe.

“The most important document (of the conference) would be not only a new constitution but a detailed blueprint on transition,” Sobhani proposes. But the actual Zimbabweans would really only play a secondary, support role.

“This blueprint would be drawn up by international experts from all industries with the help of Zimbabweans.” In other words, stand back Zimbabweans, while we liberate and sort things out for you! Umm, but you’re welcome to ‘help’ though! Sobhani seems to think that many Zimbabweans would be deliriously happy at this naked new colonialism, perhaps because, ala Libya, his ‘multinational coalition’ would be led by Obama, who has relatively strong recent genetic links to Africa!

Sobhani shows not a hint of irony in the contradiction that a conference that would effectively, unabashedly be sealing the re-colonization of Zimbabwe (‘that’s alright, it would be African-American Obama leading the new colonization, so it wouldn’t be so bad’) would be billed as freeing the country from its ‘vicious dictator.’ One suspects that it is not so much the fact of vicious dictatorship that is considered problematic, but the particular person/identity of the current ‘vicious dictator,’ who just won’t behave like a Western-obedient vicious dictator should be smart enough to do.

After the Obama-led Mugabe-deposing coalition had done its job and held the re-colonizing Zimbabwe conference in Libya, “international aid would be directed to companies doing the actual building so as to prevent corruption and fraud.” (Famous Western stereotype (in case Sobhani is too subtle for you): Wherever there is an African, there is corruption and fraud.)

“Export earnings would be deposited in a neutral country's bank.” So that the Zimbabweans don’t feel totally left out of affairs to do with their new found liberation, those earnings would “appear on a website for all Zimbabweans to see where their funds are being deposited.” Since so few Zimbabweans have access to the Internet, this could be a sign of Sobhani’s brilliant, dark humour. Again the reader wonders if Sobhani is joking, on drugs, or crazy; or all three.

So there you have it: According to Sobhani, building a democratic society is not a complicated internal process. It is an event that can instantly, easily be engineered by outsiders. In Zimbabwe’s case, it would apparently be particularly easy because, “If Mugabe were to give up power, the country would quickly show how liberated citizens can mend a shattered land.” According to Sobhani, “Zimbabweans insist(ed)” this to him. With that scholarly attribution of a source, who can doubt him?!

Zimbabwe’s politics and its rulers are clearly not serving the country well. But the reasons that some Westerners have such passionate feelings against Mugabe do not completely coincide with the reasons many Zimbabweans want fresh leadership and thinking. Even amongst Zimbabweans who are eager to see change, probably relatively few share the rabidly, emotionally anti-Mugabe feelings of a person like Sobhani. Mugabe’s place as a Zimbabwean and African political icon is secure, ironically in a way he cannibalizes with each continuing day he clings on to power after his already 31 years at the helm.

People like Sobhani are so blinded by their ill feelings against Mugabe that they fail to see why the autocrat also enjoys lingering strong support for unprecedented symbolic and actual victories that are greatly important to Africans. That this mystifies some non-Africans is more a reflection of those ‘Africa expert's’ misunderstanding of the effects of the past on the present than of anything else.

Zimbabwe is battling to fashion a better system that can help it to move forward and begin to realize its potential. A lot of the changes that need to take place are the hard issues unique to each country’s progression.

The role of outsiders, especially those from quarters who historically do not have ‘clean hands’ in the country’s tortured, violent history, is probably very limited. With the simplistic, hare-brained schemes of ‘friends’ like Rob Sobhani, Zimbabweans sure as hell don’t need any enemies. May the country move on from the Mugabe era, but it may it also be spared from an ‘Obama Zimbabwe moment.’

The Zimbabwe Review


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