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Liberation from Africa’s Liberators

Author: Stephanie Hanson
April 16, 2008

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As a rule, African leaders are loathe to criticize one of their own. So when Zambian President Levy P. Mwanawasa called an emergency meeting of the fifteen-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) to discuss Zimbabwe’s postelection deadlock, some experts were cautiously optimistic (IRIN) that the region was stepping up its role in crisis management. After years of watching silently as President Robert Mugabe’s policies drove Zimbabwe into economic crisis, the regional body seemed poised to speak out. Yet the outcome of SADC’s April 12 meeting was seen as weak: a communiqué that called for immediate release of the presidential poll results (NYT), but failed to mention Mugabe at all. The result raises new questions about the commitment of African leaders and institutions to democracy and good governance.

Mugabe, who has been in office for the past twenty-eight years, has long commanded deep respect on the continent as one of its liberation leaders. His scathing criticism of the West rang true with Africans of a certain generation who shared his experience of colonialism. But younger Africans respond less viscerally to Mugabe’s rhetoric. “More than half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa was born after the last of the independence wars; that language is lost on them, their priorities are entirely different,” writes Stephanie Nolen in Canada’s Globe & Mail. Some of those who continue to respect Mugabe’s liberation credentials now want him to step down. “History has, with this election, given him a moment of pause and a chance to redeem his legacy,” writes journalist E. Ablorh-Odjidja in the Ghanaian daily Accra Mail.

This change is paralleled in Africa’s political class, where a new generation of leaders has sprung up. The president of Botswana, Ian Khama, is the son of Seretse Khama, who held office when Mugabe first became president. Some experts say Botswana and other countries with younger leaders—such as Tanzania and Zambia—are more willing to speak out on Zimbabwe (CSMonitor).

Even in South Africa, where President Thabo Mbeki’s policy of quiet diplomacy toward Zimbabwe has been widely criticized, change seems to be afoot. Ahead of the SADC meeting, the head of South Africa’s ruling ANC party and current presidential front-runner, Jacob Zuma, spoke out against the delay in releasing Zimbabwe’s election results. Mbeki, by contrast, said there was “no crisis” (Times-SA) in Zimbabwe. While Zuma did not attend the SADC meeting, the region views him as South Africa’s “de facto leader,” says Sydney Masamvu of the International Crisis Group. Yet it’s unclear if these shifts will have any effect over Mugabe—who refused to take phone calls (Thomson Financial) from African Union leaders last week and didn’t even attend the SADC meeting.

Experts say one reason African leaders remain quiet in the face of regional turmoil is their strict interpretation of the concept of sovereignty. The African Union enshrines the principles of sovereignty and noninterference in the affairs of another state in its charter, which some analysts say has discouraged even soft, diplomatic initiatives to respond to crises. This makes it an ineffective body, writes Quentin Wray, a leading South African columnist. The African Union, he says, repeatedly sends the message, “if you are unlucky enough to live under tyranny you’re on your own.” An op-ed on Uganda’s New Vision website suggests the body reconsider its stance on sovereignty, calling it “a major contributing factor to the suffering of Africans.” At the same time, monitors like the International Crisis Group say the African Union played a positive role in resolving the Kenya crisis earlier this year. 

Some experts suggest Africa’s leaders also find it useful to turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of others. That way, writes Joshua Kurlantzick in the New Republic, they can insulate themselves from criticism, too. Other analysts worry the African Union’s failure to act on Zimbabwe might embolden other leaders to mimic Mugabe’s behavior. With elections on the horizon in Ghana, Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, and Guinea, the precedent of Zimbabwe is cause for concern.

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