Don't overdo the sanctions
Philip Bowring The International Herald Tribune
Monday, March 18, 2002
HONG KONG The 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.
International Herald Tribune
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