KONGThe judgments being made of the Zimbabwe elections have
implications far beyond Africa. They go to the heart of a wider division between
the mostly white, liberal democratic developed world and much of the rest.
Viewed from Asia, the West appears to have devoted diplomatic attention and
media coverageout of proportion to the issues involved. For sure, President
Robert Mugabe has run roughshod over democratic principles and has appeared
determined to hold onto office at all costs, in the process playing some crude
racial cards. For sure too, his behavior has had a negative impact on
perceptions of Africa. This is not the first time that the Commonwealth has
threatened to expel or suspend a member – Pakistan and Fiji have both been
ostracized following coups. Nor are wider western sanctions against regimes
which have thwarted the electoral process unknown. Burma, following the
hijacking of Aung San Suu Kyi's electoral 1990 triumph is a prime example. In
Latin America, U.S. pressure has had some role in the shift away from
authoritarian regimes. In Africa itself, pressure from the West has strengthened
democratic movements in Nigeria and elsewhere.
However, targeting Mugabe could well be
counter-productive. There are suspicions, not just in Africa, that the West
would have turned a blind eye but for the white minority. Electoral fraud there
was but the extent to which Mugabe owes his position largely to it is debatable.
Those who led their nations to independence have a claim on popular support long
after their administrative incompetence, megalomania and other faults have
become well-known to the electorate. Two that come to mind: Indonesia's Sukarno
whose daughter is now President of Indonesia and Sheikh Mujib, whose daughter
was till recently Prime Minister of Bangladesh. There is also such a thing as
democratic authoritarianism. Citizens of Malaysia and Singapore, for example,
know this well. Independent western observers can easily conclude that in one
country or the other muzzled media, gerrymandered constituencies, campaigning
restrictions and the use of legal and other sanctions against opposition
politicians have distorted the democratic process. Given the freedoms of, say,
the Netherlands, the voting tallies would be very different. Yet such is the
preference for the status quo that it would be wrong to suggest that the
governments lacked popular support. Zimbabwe may be different, but it is only a
matter of degree.
Nor do Mugabe's oppressions seem
significantly worse than those which have occurred in Kenya, Uganda and some
other Commonwealth states. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Mugabe has
attracted such attention not so much because of his failings as a democrat or in
economic management but because of his treatment of white farmers. That has been
cynical and indefensible and is of legitimate concern to Britain. But he is not
unique in resorting to nasty racial politics.
African solidarity, however misguided, in
urging acceptance of the vote needs to be taken into account if black-white
diplomatic divides are not to be become more entrenched.