Opinion: Zimbabwe election

The ‘Grave concerns’ voiced by William Hague over Zimbabwe’s election make clear their displeasure at Robert Mugabe winning a seventh presidential term. But would the result be any different were it not for voter fraud? Britain has implied this but not even opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai claims he really won.

The issue is not whether Mugabe stole the presidential election but whether he stole the all-important two-thirds majority in parliament which allows ZANU-PF to make constitutional changes. Tsvangirai lost because the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is a mess. There are two MDC’s, one run by Welshman Ncube, and many activists are dismayed at continually being outwitted by Mugabe.

As Prime Minister since 2009 Tsvangirai has been unable to extend his influence into the machinery of government or increase his electoral appeal outside the urban conurbations of Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare and Chitungwiza. And the British media’s past championing of Tsvangirai meant he was portrayed as a Western puppet. What Zimbabwe needs is a new leadership who can unite rural and urban, Shona and Matabele, for life after Mugabe.

I am no fan of Mugabe. As a half-Zimbabwean I have seen the rubble that was once MDC-supporting neighbourhoods and witnessed scrums for sacks of mealy-meal (ground maize). One of my in-laws was arrested, tortured for a week and dumped in the bush after the army burst into a Harare neighbourhood seizing every adult male they could find.

Zimbabwe is ruled by the cult of personality of Mugabe. The country lives in fear of him, daring not even to mention his name in public lest they are overheard by a Central Intelligence Service informer. Mugabe has always ruled with a rod of iron and follows a long tradition of post-colonial leaders who continue to perpetrate the bloody tactics of oppressors they fought to overthrow. Opposition activists have been killed every year of Mugabe’s 33 year rule; it began 19 years before he was demonised.

Britain largely turned a blind eye to the Matabeleland massacres in 1982 in what was essentially a post-colonial tribal conflict. It was not until 1999, when years of broken promises of land reform led to so-called war veterans seizing white-owned farms, that Mugabe was portrayed as ‘Hitler’ in Britain. British outrage eventually evolved into concern for the plight of black Zimbabweans but sanctions and a business boycott plunged the economy into a tailspin and ordinary Zimbabweans suffered.

Writing in The Guardian this week, Roy Agyemang explains why Britain continues to miss the importance of post-colonial politics.

Land reform matters because it was, in part, why tens of thousands lost their lives fighting for in the 14-year war of independence. Britain was working on compensation for white farmers before Tony Blair, in true neo-colonial fashion, tied the deal to democratic reform which Mugabe could not live with, precipitating the farm raids. Mugabe’s anti-colonial rhetoric resonates with many Zimbabweans because the people saw how a successful economy nosedived after the farm invasions.

The country will move on from a freedom-fighting mindset when freedom to control its’ own destiny has been achieved.

The country is now stuck with Mugabe for a few more years. It retains the support of SADC, South Africa and the African Union because they recognise what Mugabe stands for in a way that the West doesn’t. The situation is far from ideal for Zimbabweans but there are other countries in a worse predicament and with greater political oppression. The ‘stealing’ of a presidential election which Mugabe would have won anyway is the least of its problems.

The best thing Britain can do is leave Zimbabweans to sort out their own problems and engage constructively on trade. Political change will come eventually. The worst thing Britain can do is endorse another opposition leader. That will, once again, would be the kiss of death.

* Lester Holloway is a former councillor and member of the Equalities Policy Working Group, and a member of the Race Equality Taskforce

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12 Comments

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 5th Aug '13 - 12:02pm

    An excellent article Lester, it has certainly made me rethink my stance and I tend to swing to supporting your conclusion.

  • Geoffrey Payne 5th Aug '13 - 1:42pm

    I think Zimbabwe is a country like many others. It so one where the UK has very little leverage and all we can do is watch. The principle we should stick to is don’t make things worse. For any country that has a poor human rights record we should not sell it arms. If we do we are responsible for the oppression that takes place there. Otherwise the responsibility lies with the government of that country.

  • Mr Mugabe’s dislike of white people doesn’t seem to extend to Mr Nicholas Van Hoogstraten.

  • Jonathan Brown 6th Aug '13 - 12:07am

    I agree that British support for opposition leaders (and not just in Zimbabwe) can be a kiss of death to their credibility and support. I haven’t followed events in Zimbabwe closely enough to really comment upon Tsvangirai’s chances in a free and fair election, and although you may objectively be right that the country needs a new opposition that can unite people, I think you’re still being a little harsh on him the the MDC (or MDCs).

    Mugabe may represent many necessary things for a lot of Zimbabweans – such as national pride and land reform – but that doesn’t mean that he’s seriously attempted to bring those about for ordinary Zimbabweans, rather than just use the issues as cover for his own ambitions. And with decades of oppressive state activity behind him, it’s not really fair to say that Tsvangirai ‘wouldn’t have won anyway’. That may be so, and he may not be an inspiring leader, but he also hasn’t had much of a chance. Of course, life is not fair – anywhere – and what the people need is a leadership and a political movement that can create its own chances, and win the support of the people who matter – Zimbabweans and their neighbours in the SADC.

    I agree too that Britain has a very poor record of understanding the politics of our former colonies and in knowing how to act in a constructive way. We still seem to display an unbelievable degree of ignorance about colonial attrocities and to which our history still has an impact on post colonial societies today.

  • Elene Parker 6th Aug '13 - 3:00am

    And here we have the less than favourable – not to mention immediate – economic repercussions following the obviously rigged election: http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/showlink.aspx?bookmarkid=UR4BVGWCWAM2&preview=article&linkid=c4ec6474-783b-452f-ba9f-156023a20410&pdaffid=ZVFwBG5jk4Kvl9OaBJc5%2bg%3d%3d

  • andrew purches 6th Aug '13 - 9:37am

    It is very difficult for anyone without direct knowledge or involvement with Zimbabweans to make any sort of constructive comment that is helpful, and Jonathan Brown’s comment are fairly and convincingly put. It would help us to understand the predicament that the people of Zimbabwe are still facing if we just look at the history of Eire during the evil era that was dominated by a like minded President in the shape of Eamon de Valera. This man, with his Roman Catholic background, a firm belief in a warped form of christian based Marxist economics, and a truly wicked,murderous, reaction to his perceived political enemies who he believed to be traitors in the pay of the English colonisers in Westminster,was still able to create a long term power base that lasted nigh on five decades, and kept Eire as a poor, sad,corrupt and Church dominated elected one party dictatorship,that was only saved by the death of this man and its joining the EEC. Mugabe is a black Valera, and this is something we just have to live with.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Aug '13 - 3:26pm

    Constituency-by-constituency election results can be found here.

    The effects of poorly maintained electoral rolls, fraud and so on have been well discussed. However, disregarding these and supposing for the sake of argument the votes given are a true expression of opinion, just look at how they are distorted by the FPTP electoral system. The effect is that the MDC seems to be a party of just a few places, where it gets the majority vote and so wins Assembly members. However, it is actually gaining respectable minority support across Zimbabwe. If this minority support were to return Assembly members as it would in a proportional system (balanced by a few ZANU-PF members from the MDC strongholds), the impression of division would be reduced.

    FPTP means that if a political party has majority support in one area or amongst one tribe, it ends up having Assembly members just from that area or that tribe, even if it has substantial minority support elsewhere. As a result, the party comes to be identified as the party just of that area or tribe, thus increasing division.

    andrew purches mentions de Valera in Ireland, but one thing de Valera was unable to do, though he tried, was to get rid of the STV electoral system that Ireland was left with after independence. The STV system helped heal the divisions left after independence and ensured a multi-party system developed and de Valera could not become quite the dictator he might have been. Compare this with what happened with the reversion to FPTP in Norther Ireland.

  • Jonathan Brown 6th Aug '13 - 11:40pm

    Interesting observation Matthew! FPTP not just a disaster for the UK then!

  • Great article Lester. “The worst thing Britain can do is endorse another opposition leader. That will, once again, would be the kiss of death.” I totally agree.

    Thanks for bringing up the 1982 Matabeleland massacres … they were horrendous. It was then that I switched from being an adoring fan of Mugabe, to fearing and reviling him. He is a leader who truly scares me. I think it takes real bravery to even vote against ZANU/PF in rural areas, let alone to be an activist. I feel so powerless to help.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Aug '13 - 2:22pm

    Jonathan, if anything, FPTP has been more of a disaster in various African countries than it has been here. Try looking at Ghana here to see how FPTP exaggerates the division, making the NPP seem to be the Ashanti party and the NDC the everyone-else party. FPTP has sort of worked in the UK because the UK is relatively homogenous but with the votes of the two main parties distributed in such a way that they both obtain a reasonable share of seats. Even here, however, the regional distortion has quite a tribalising effect, exaggerating the north-south differences, making Labour seem the northern/urban tribe party and the Conservatives the southern/rural tribe party.

    If the country is relatively homogenous, or there is one party which has the largest support everywhere, the result is a one-party assembly even if there is a substantial minority vote. The extreme example of this would be a country where in every constituency party A gets 51% of the vote and party B gets 49% of the vote – then party A wins every seat and party B wins none. Election results perhaps not quite as extreme but something of this sort have been instrumental in what could have been multi-party democracies moving to one-party states.

    It is quite remarkable that something which ought to be fairly obvious goes without discussion, at least I have never come across any. Accounts of the Zimbabwe election go into detail about alleged electoral irregularities, and I’ve no doubt they are a big factor. However, it never gets reported how the sense that these elections are not delivering fair results might also come from the way the FPTP system distorts in favour of the largest party. So a party with substantial minority support may be losing its fair share of representation, or denied representation altogether, not because of fraudulence, but because that’s how FPTP works.

  • Moffat Thomas 7th Aug '13 - 3:23pm

    Great article Lester. Tsvangirai was a naive to go into this election hoping he would win. After the 2008 election mess Mugabe and Zanu PF reorganised and came back stronger and wanted to win the 2013 election. Somehow Mugabe has gained support over the past years – post 2008. Could it be the Land Reform are starting to work (tobacco and cotton production levels have had some significant improvements). The compromises that Tsvangirai made in the five year Government of National Unity have come back to haunt. Maybe as a trade unionist Tsvangirai delivered but to lead a nation this was a higher call and he did not have it in him. You would not dare step into the ring with Mike Tyson with one arm tied behind your back. Tsvangirai knew what he was up against . Maybe the Strive Masiyiwas, Nkosana Moyos will step up and fill the leadership vacuum Zimbabwe desparately has. British support for opposition leaders has received a smack in the face.

  • Jonathan Brown 7th Aug '13 - 6:10pm

    All good points Matthew. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was an angle other than the fraud one, but you’re obviously right.

    Reminds me of a good point made in this article about how FPTP is helping tip Egypt towards conflict: http://reformgroups.net/ers/archives/489?utm_source=Reform+Groups&utm_campaign=37c6fa540e-RGN_Newsletter_3_Aug_20138_3_2013&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b0896a2416-37c6fa540e-101927201

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