Our troubled brothers

Ellen Knickmeyer’s confused article on Robert Mugabe’s reflects the problems with American coverage of international events well. It is inconsistent, stating at once that “Though not on the summit’s official agenda, the crisis in Zimbabwe dominates the meeting,” while offering no proof of this (and naming no African leaders, outside of Desmond Tutu and Kofi Annan (civil society, in essence), who have demanded he step down, though they surely have) and that

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the summit’s host, did not include Zimbabwe in the ranks of nations whose problems he said the African bloc must address. The African leaders made no immediate public statements on the validity of the Zimbabwe elections.

While Knickmeyer admits recognizes the AU’s long-standing commitment state sovereignty and dealing with disputes between African states, and that many African leaders are in no position to criticize Mugabe’s anti-democratic policies (the summit is being held in Egypt, of all places!!), she seems to be at a loss as to why African leaders would want to address the Eritrea-Djibouti conflict ahead of what is predominantly a domestic affair in Zimbabwe. This “obscure series of clashes between Dijbouti and Eritrea” that the Africans mentioned “several times more often than they mentioned problems in Zimbabwe” is one that could escalate into a wider regional conflict that could bring in Somali, Ethiopian, and Western interests into confrontation, destabilizing a major world trade route on the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, which links the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean. This is precisely the kind of conflict that the AU was formed to mediate. (These clashes are “obscure” because American news reports have ignored it, almost entirely (the NYT ran a piece on it little while ago), like they do many African conflicts that do not appeal to high school students or Bono.)

While Knickmeyer may expect the AU to give a higher priority to those issues that Western leaders find most interesting — there are several Zimbabwe’s in Africa and Egypt is one of them — this is not how the AU works, nor is it the mission of most regional fora in the Third World to work in such a manner. The last time I recall an African state being punished for an illegal assumption of power was in 2005, when a military coup deposed a long time dictator in Mauritania. The military government promised elections and legal reforms, which it did and a new government was soon reelected democratically (though it is doubtful that this government will have real staying power at this point). This was in response to the overthrow of a dictator, not the obstruction of any democratic process, such as any could have existed in Mauritania at the time. It was in defense of the pre-existing, authoritarian, order. The AU is not a revolutionary body. Sharm el-Sheikh is not the place to look for democratic criticism. This is, again, Egypt, Zimbabwe’s Arab cousin.

The Africans will wait until the troubles really spill over into South Africa, or other southern African states (but when it hits South Africa is when it will hit the continent and they begin to care) to the point that it is no longer easy to say that it is manageable. This is how the Darfur crisis has been dealt with; it simmered as a Sudanese issue, defended as such by Arab and African leaders, until it became undeniable that it had become an inter-state issue between Sudan and Chad. Even now that problem is inadequately dealt with as a result of the AU’s mission and structure. Zimbabwe and Darfur are very good examples in any case in favor of reforming the AU and strengthening its human rights institutions.

8 thoughts on “Our troubled brothers

  1. Nouri,

    You wrote:
    “Zimbabwe and Darfur are very good examples in any case in favor of reforming the AU and strengthening its human rights institutions.”

    And who exactly do you expect will lead the charge in that process?

  2. And who exactly do you expect will lead the charge in that process?

    It will have to be the African states, and probably will happen after something disastrous occurs, if it does at all. I’m not saying it will, or even that it should. All I am saying in that regard is that they reflect the need.

  3. Sorry, but Zimbabwe is a much more important story on most levels. The deafening silence of African political leadership in response to such blatant political violence is shameful. And the economic meltdown in Zimbabwe has already had repercussions for southern Africa. The agricultural sector has been destroyed, in a country that was formerly one of Africa’s major food exporters. 16,000% inflation and fuel shortages have led to a mass exodus to neighboring countries, which are struggling to integrate the Zimbabweans; witness the xenophobic riots in South Africa. And nearly all of it can be traced back to one man who refuses to cede power despite the overwhelming evidence that his rule is strangling the country. No one has leverage over Mugabe except his neighbors: not the Americans or British or even the Chinese. So it’s all the more worrisome that South Africa and the SADC are unwilling to speak out against Mugabe’s regime.

  4. No one has leverage over Mugabe except his neighbors: not the Americans or British or even the Chinese. So it’s all the more worrisome that South Africa and the SADC are unwilling to speak out against Mugabe’s regime.

    This is true, although I would say that the Chinese, comparatively, have more leverage than either the Americans or British, they simply fail to exercise it.

    As for Zimbabwe being a more important story than other conflicts in Africa, this is not true diplomatically speaking. So long as the case can be made that it is a domestic dispute, it will not come before concerns of inter-state warfare or genocide. Those kinds of conflicts will always take first priority in the AU and all other international bodies so long as the international system is based off of state sovereignty. When it appears the country can no longer be held together, that the regime is threatening its neighbors, or that its economic failures are causing the rest of the region to go down along with it, it will not attract the kind of attention it has among Westerners in Africa.

    I am not saying that Zimbabwe’s problems are not important or not causing a great deal of harm, or that the African response has not been shameful. The AU response, though, simply has not been out of character and it does not and should not overshadow the democratic deficit that the rest of the continent is seeing in several states, quite often under Western auspices. In this respect, the Western media’s attention to Zimbabwe and the African response to this is in my mind disingenuous and inconsistent, as much as I recognize and sympathize with those who would prefer to see Mugabe ousted and the country’s economy stabilized.

  5. nouriThis is true, although I would say that the Chinese, comparatively, have more leverage than either the Americans or British, they simply fail to exercise it.

    An important part of which is, I think, that they have more leverage precisely because they do not exercise it. No strings attached and no civil society human rights activism is a comparative advantage in their deals with African dictatorships.

    jefferson — As for Zimbabwe’s neighbours not disciplining Mugabe, I agree that this non-interference shit has been taken to self-destructive levels, but do spare a thought for the fact that they are the ones that will have to live with the consequences, should Zimbabwe suffer civil war, and they are the ones to put their political standing on the line if they try and fail. (Thinking mostly of S. Africa here.) Certainly they could do more, and should do more, both for the sake of Zimbabwe and the AU and themselves, but as Nouri said, it’s really not out of the ordinary on that continent, and it’s quite consistent with how those states that are now raising hell over Zimbabwe (US, UK, various EU states) act when their own interests are at stake. Can anyone remember the US forcing Saudi Arabia to hold fair presidential elections recently?

  6. Nouri: I agree that the article is a telling of the cafeteria-style approach characteristic of most American international journalism: this author’s dismissal of one of many Horn conflicts as obscure only serves to highlight her ignorance of a much larger picture. Indeed, the American fixation with a handful of “high-profile” cases at the expense of others is hard at work here.

    Still, your discussion with Jefferson and Alle neglects the fact that any amount of leaning on a country represents a challenge to its sovereignty, whether it’s a domestic issue or an interstate dispute. While the AU may task itself with mediating regionally destabilizing conflicts in favor of an (obviously) hands-off approach to domestic abuses, the justification for this cannot be an inalienable respect for state sovereignty. After all, its presence in, say, Sudan and Somalia often are viewed as an affront to such sovereignty.

    As for Zimbabwe’s destabilization being an imminent threat to its neighbors, this has been a suicide in progress for some time. The economics and politics (especially recent xenophobic outbursts) have forced the hands of even the staunchest Mugabe apologists. Sure, as Alle brought up, I would never expect SA or the US to hold a regime to the fire for purely ideological reasons, god knows they will when it suits their immediate needs.

    Alle makes a good point that the lack of rights and civil society in China make it easy for China to cultivate a client relationship with just about any state. After all, with no domestic accountability and all international accountability tied to economics, what do they have to lose? But China is hardly an anomaly, and I think we’re seeing exactly what we would expect: inaction due to (1) a collective-action problem among the neighbors, and (2) the fact that action is tied to a huge uncertainty function that affects their perceived net gains.

  7. Still, your discussion with Jefferson and Alle neglects the fact that any amount of leaning on a country represents a challenge to its sovereignty, whether it’s a domestic issue or an interstate dispute. While the AU may task itself with mediating regionally destabilizing conflicts in favor of an (obviously) hands-off approach to domestic abuses, the justification for this cannot be an inalienable respect for state sovereignty. After all, its presence in, say, Sudan and Somalia often are viewed as an affront to such sovereignty.

    Very true. But I think that the reason many African states are reluctant to pressure Mugabe (not ZA or the other southern Africans) is because they fear similar pressure and do not want to see it become the norm on the continent. The challenges to Sudan’s sovereignty are necessary, but that has not stopped Sudan from saying as much and frustrating international efforts on its territory.

    I agree with your comments about China and the problems the neighbors have, and I think the second point is most important.

  8. The main problem of Mugabe is not that he is more dictatorial than most other African leaders. It is only that he has not yet physically eliminated its opposition, unlike them… Zimbabwe gets more attention from the public because its opposition knows how to use Western media better than others. But the country is only one amongst many.

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