The significance of Zambian president Michael Sata’s ‘Western stooge’ outburst on Morgan Tsvangirai

Jan 31, 2012

Newly elected Zambian president Michael Sata has astonishingly called Zimbabwean prime minister and aspiring president Morgan Tsvangirai a ‘Western stooge.’ Even for a man known to be outspoken and cutting in his comments, it was certainly undiplomatic and arguably ill-advised for Sata to say this about the at least nominal head of government of a neighboring country. But beyond the ill-advisability of Sata’s comments, they show just how deeply entrenched this view of Tsvangirai is, even amongst those who might be expected to be his natural supporters and sympathizers.

Speaking to the UK Telegraph, Sata reportedly said, “‘we don’t know the policies of Morgan – he has other people speaking for him rather than speaking for himself. There will be elections and Mugabe will go and someone else will take over but not someone imposed by the Western countries.’

The four year coalition government between President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s MDC party is a messy, unhappy, poorly functioning affair. Mugabe insists elections should be held soon to resolve the political impasse, while Tsvangirai’s party insists that a new constitution and many other pre-electoral conditions need to be fixed before elections which can be said to be free and fair can be held. The regional Southern Africa Development Community is in charge of overseeing the process of ensuring agreed conditions for such elections have been met.

On this issue, Sata said, “You people, the Western countries, you taught us that democracy is elections. Now somebody wants elections and you say no. There will be elections and Mugabe will go and someone else will take over, but not someone imposed by the Western countries.”

Sata went on to reiterate his support for the controversial land reform program under Mugabe, a key element of much of the latter’s notoriety in the West, including and especially in the pages of British papers like the Telegraph. Sata used words like   ‘imperialists’ and ‘capitalist-roaders’ to describe Western critics of Mugabe.

Most of the reaction to Sata’s comments has been shock that he would be so publicly undiplomatic. After all, whatever he may think of Tsvangirai, he heads one of the two biggest political parties in Zimbabwe. It is not at all unconceivable that Tsvangirai could be Zimbabwe’s president in the not too distant future, possibly during Sata’s own time as president of Zambia. Sata’s statement means relations between their two governments would likely be frosty. Sata’s comments go beyond the ‘normal,’ private kind of back-bating that may take place between regional heads of government.

There are certainly many perspectives from which Sata’s comments were unstatesman-like and unwise interference in the political affairs of a neighboring country. While Sata is known and lauded by his admirers for being frank and plain-spoken, his public comments about Tsvangirai may yet come back to haunt him.

It is to be expected that Tsvangirai’s supporters reacted to Sata’s outburst with surprised indignation. Resentment at Sata for the comments has been the main reaction.

Over and above Sata’s lack of tact, though, there are many other surprising, instructive elements about his view of Tsvangirai, and his willingness to go public with them in a very high profile way.

‘Western stooge’ is how Mugabe and ZANU-PF regard Tsvangirai. This is a charge that is normally dismissed as part of the propaganda onslaught against Tsvangirai by a Mugabe who flaunts the mantle of anti-imperialism at every opportunity. But the accusation carries a very different import when uttered by somebody like Sata. It cannot be simply shrugged off as part of the ZANU-PF effort to demonize Tsvangirai.

Sata’s comments are a reminder of how deeply entrenched the impression of Tsvangirai as a willing tool of foreign (Western) interests has become. Statements and actions by MDC leaders and their Western sympathizers/supporters over the years have only made this impression stick tighter, particularly in Africa. Media reports indicate that in his recently published book, ‘At the deep end,’ Tsvangirai mentions the early tactical mistakes that led to the spreading of this impression of him and his party. But this is a trap that Tsvangirai and his party have only sunk deeper into over the years.

Few Africans can be said to be really ‘anti-Western.’ The West is influential and widely admired for many things in most of Africa, even by its many critics. However, ‘Western stooge’ is an accusation with heavy political, reputation costs in an Africa whose negative encounters with the Western world are not ancient history. A leader is expected to have good relations with the powerful and influential Western world, but to be seen as a slavish errand boy for it is to be stuck with just the kind of hard-to-shake derision that Sata has directed at Tsvangirai.

Voter antipathy to the ancient, over-staying Mugabe may be much stronger than any negative sentiment against Tsvangirai for what some find to be too-close ties to Western power centers who some do not believe to have the best history/intentions towards Africa. Tsvangirai’s being regarded a stooge of the West may not prevent him from becoming Zimbabwean president. But judging by Sata’s sniping, the ‘stooge’ tag would likely follow Tsvangirai right into the presidential palace, limiting his regional/continental status and influence. Only an unusually successful economic run as president might eventually neutralize this, although even that might not do it.

Sata’s predecessor Rupiah Banda was seen as critical of Mugabe and sympathetic to Tsvangirai. The media have been eagerly looking for signs of where Sata stands on the matter of Zimbabwe’s problems, especially in light of SADC’s formal role in resolving them, and of Zambia being an important neighbor with historically close ties.

On Sata’s coming into office, the state-owned media made much of his previously expressed support for Zimbabwe’s land reform, and his strong brand of nationalism, which was likened to that of Mugabe. The implication was that Sata was Mugabe’s natural soul mate, and would ease off on Banda’s mild, indirect criticisms of Mugabe.

A few weeks later, the virulently anti-Mugabe private media was gladdened at the news that Sata would not attend the December 2011 ZANU-PF conference that appointed Mugabe as its presidential candidate. This was gleefully taken as a snub of Mugabe by Sata.

But until Sata’s ‘stooge’ statement about Tsvangirai, it had not been clear whose side Sata was on. It must also be mentioned that his denigration of Tsvangirai does not necessarily imply uncritical support of Mugabe.

However, despite his support of Mugabe-orchestrated land reform, there were many reasons to have thought that Sata might be sympathetic to Tsvangirai.

Sata’s accession to the Zambian presidency was made possible by a now well established, deepening democratic process in Zambia. If his several predecessors had held on to power as tenaciously as Mugabe has done in Zimbabwe, Sata would not be president of Zambia today. Tsvangirai’s long struggle to depose Mugabe at the polls mirrors Sata’s battles to the top job in Zambia. Tsvangirai has been ruthlessly thwarted at every turn by Mugabe’s machinery, as Sata claimed to have happened to him in the past in Zambia. On this basis Sata may have been expected to have more affinity for Tsvangirai than Mugabe.

Sata may be an outspoken nationalist, but on no account can he be said to an anti-Western ideologue in the way that Mugabe had become in recent years. Sata is pragmatist who has been forced to tone down his criticisms of the strong Chinese role in Zambia’s economy, but who has also openly expressed a desire for good and growing relations with the West. The western political and media establishments reacted very favorably to Sata’s election, some almost seeming to take the stance that ‘he’s safe, he’s one of ours.’

In late 2011 US Secretary of State gave her seal of approval of Sata by attending an international trade meeting in Lusaka. Former US president George Bush II and his wife visited Lusaka soon afterwards.

Sata is clearly considered a friend of the West, unlike the Western-reviled Mugabe. This just serves to make Sata’s accusation of Tsvangirai as a ‘Western stooge’ even more biting. The Sata who values good relations with the West feels that Tsvangirai has gone beyond just having good relations with the West to being their stooge! If anything, this charge coming from Sata is even more devastating than when it is made by Tsvangirai’s foe Mugabe, when it could just be dismissed as politicking.

As Tsvangirai is well aware, he has a serious image problem in Africa and beyond. Being the ‘anti-Mugabe’ in the West may be good for his party’s finances, but there is clearly also a heavy political cost to his being perceived as being in the pockets of his Western backers and sympathizers. It loses Tsvangirai much support that should almost naturally be his, and will ‘cost’ him in many ways even if he does become president.


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