Why I refuse to condemn #Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe

It is clear why Zimbabweans want a change of government, writes Adolf Mkenda, but it isn’t clear why the West has been more critical of Mugabe than other leaders with worse records on human rights and democracy. Mkenda argues that two key factors sparked this response: The international connections of white Zimbabweans, and Mugabe’s reneging on the IMF’s structural adjustment program in favour of nationalisation and land seizure, in contradiction with the neo-liberal thinking of the time. ‘International efforts to promote democracy and human rights must be accepted and encouraged, but these must not be allowed to be used abusively as a selective instrument of punishing governments that chart out an independent path for their own people,’ writes Mkenda.

Its clear why Zimbabweans want a change of government, writes Adolf Mkenda, but it isn’t clear why the West has been more critical of Mugabe than other leaders with worse records on human rights and democracy. Mkenda argues that two key factors sparked this response: The international connections of white Zimbabweans, and Mugabe’s reneging on the IMF’s structural adjustment program in favour of nationalisation and land seizure, in contradiction with the neo-liberal thinking of the time. ‘International efforts to promote democracy and human rights must be accepted and encouraged, but these must not be allowed to be used abusively as a selective instrument of punishing governments that chart out an independent path for their own people,’ writes Mkenda.


The bungled presidential election in Zimbabwe in 2008 sharpened the global focus on the country and increased the international campaign to remove President Mugabe from power. Official results showed that Robert Mugabe trailed Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round of presidential election and the opposition edged the ruling Zanu PF in the parliamentary election, clearly indicating that the people of Zimbabwe were voting for change. It is also clear that had Mugabe not unleashed his brutal security forces onto the opposition activists and supporters, forcing the main opposition party to wisely pull out of the re-run to avert more chaos and loss of lives, he would have lost the presidential election.

Meanwhile the economy of Zimbabwe has been thrown into a tailspin by the combination of economic sanctions, droughts and mismanagement. It is therefore natural that the people of Zimbabwe may seek to change the government in power in the hope that things would get better. The freedom to choose their leaders is a fundamental right of people, a right that must be respected everywhere. That is why many well-meaning people can never forgive Mugabe for undermining democracy in Zimbabwe and for callously presiding over brutal chaos to ensure his stay in power.

In spite of these facts, I find it difficult to join the chorus of those condemning Mugabe. Certainly, Zimbabwe is not the worst country in terms of abusing human rights and undermining democracy. This fact is of little comfort to the people of Zimbabwe who are enduring appalling hardship, and as a matter of principle, it makes no sense to be indifferent to the violation of human rights simply because there are worse perpetrators. It is however important to examine the reasons for the selective focus on Zimbabwe by the West, and why a similar frenzy is absent in the case of, say, the occupation of Palestine. Some would argue that the comparison of Zimbabwe and occupied Palestine is misplaced because the latter has a complex history the context of which must not be ignored. The Zimbabwean case is also complex in its historical context, something that is routinely ignored by the international media and by the Western governments.

There are two factors that explain the high international profile that Zimbabwe’s political problem has assumed. The first has to do with the international character of a significant size of the population of Zimbabwe. Most of the people of Zimbabwe who were negatively affected by land seizure are of European descent, and maintain an extensive network of contacts with Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries where it is easy for them to gain political sympathy from the governments of ‘kith and kin’.

Another reason for the high international profile accorded to Zimbabwe’s politics is the fact that Mugabe reneged on the economic structural adjustment programme (ESAP), and started to talk about nationalisation and the land seizure that he presided over from 2000 to 2003. The issue of structural adjustment and land policy are related and are contrary to the dominant neo-liberal thinking. Charting independent economic policy, which harms western corporate interests and aspirations, has never received favour from the West. The double standards that the West maintains in its pursuit of the human rights and democracy agenda depends very much on whether the ‘perpetrator’ is left-leaning or right-leaning ideologically; the democracy and human rights agenda is pushed with fury to left-leaning countries such as Cuba, while for countries that maintain neo-liberal policies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt there is a benign neglect in following up on this agenda. Mugabe is not a left leaning politician per se, but his reneging on ESAP and his move to seize land was setting a ‘dangerous’ precedent.

I would argue in this piece that the selective focus by powerful countries in the West on human rights records and democracy in developing countries is an instrument that is used to coerce and impose hegemony. There is hardly a government in poor countries that can survive the elaborate economic sanctions and political isolation accompanied with massive support to the opposition movement without either being toppled or suffering a defeat in an election. The campaign against Mugabe, both in terms of economic sanctions and through support to the opposition, that has been orchestrated by the UK and other foreign governments would make leaders in developing countries trip over themselves in morbid fear of what might happen to them should they fail to toe the line of hegemonic power, effectively undermining the very essence of democracy in their own countries.

Clearly a large number of Zimbabweans are grateful for the foreign economic and political campaign to remove Mugabe from power, and some are agitated that more was not done to topple the regime. Nevertheless, it should be clear that freedom to choose leaders must also mean a freedom from foreign manipulation to influence electoral outcomes, particularly when such foreign manipulation aims at imposing ideological and economic hegemony. On a larger picture one can see the undemocratic tendency in the double standard used to single out and punish Mugabe so that his people can reject him. I find it difficult therefore to join the bandwagon of non-Zimbabweans who are condemning Mugabe without feeling that I am abetting in my own small way the extension of a hegemony which negates the very values of democracy I cherish for Zimbabweans and for everyone.


The double standard that the West displays in dealing with Zimbabwe is informed by the Jeane Kirkpatrick doctrine outlined in her essay on Dictatorships and Double Standards that asserts that rightwing ‘authoritarian governments are more amenable to democratic reforms than left-wing ‘dictatorships’, and thus it is fine to maintain a double standard by supporting right-wing authoritarian regimes while undermining left-wing dictatorships. Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was an influential thinker and a diplomat in the Reagan administration wrote ‘Dictatorship and Double Standards’ to repudiate Jimmy Carter’s pursuit of human rights and democracy in US foreign relations. Her work gave an intellectual justification for using the ploy of promoting democracy and human rights to covertly and overtly undermine left leaning governments such as Cuba and even the democratically elected socialist government of Allende in Chile, while at the same time propping up brutal right-wing authoritarian regimes such apartheid South Africa and Zaire under Mobutu.

A more recent justification of double standards in the West’s foreign policy relations has been given by Robert Cooper, a Kenyan born British career diplomat, and an influential advisor of Tony Blair who now works for the EU, in his essay The Post Modern State. Cooper considers direct re-colonising of poor countries, which he branded pre-modern states, to be a very desirable but currently untenable arrangement. The alternative to direct colonisation that he proposes is to employ double standards, deceit and force in dealing with these countries, most of which are African. ‘The challenge to the post-modern world is to get used to the idea of double standard’, he wrote. ‘Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security. But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of states outside the post-modern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the nineteenth century world of every state for itself’. Mugabe’s reversal of structural adjustment policy and the land seizure policy constitute a tendency towards what Cooper would consider as ‘every state for itself’ and thus justifying the double standard, deceit and even force to get rid of him.

Politicians cannot afford to be as candid as Cooper, and thus in dealing with ‘errant’ countries such as Zimbabwe issues of human rights and democracy are used as justification for coercing compliance and if necessary organising regime change. When Mugabe repeatedly laments that Britain wants to re-colonise Zimbabwe, he sounds hollow in the ears of the hungry Zimbabweans and Africans long tired of dictators who invoke past colonial injustices and looming possibility of re-colonisation to justify their grip on power. Yet Cooper was an influential advisor to Tony Blair and continues to shape the European policies through his position in the EU. Mugabe’s rhetoric against the looming attempt to re-colonise Zimbabwe, even if uttered with narrow self interest of rallying support to his failing regime, is not just a common hyperbole of a man under siege.

Some examples of double standards by the UK and the West on Zimbabwe can illustrate that Kirkpatrick’s and Cooper’s doctrines on double standards are more than academic fantasy. In 2001 a general election was held in Uganda in which Museveni was declared a winner for the presidency. This election was marred by violence and cheating to the extent that the Supreme Court of Uganda unanimously agreed that there was widespread cheating in the election. The candidate who challenged Museveni, Colonel Besigye, had to flee the country after the election in fear of his life. On his return from exile Colonel Besigye was arrested and charged with treason. Similarly, in 2002 Zimbabwe held an election in which Mugabe was declared a winner in an election that was marred with violence and was considered not to have been free and fair. Morgan Tsvangirai, the candidate who challenged Mugabe for presidency was variously charged with treason and for plotting to assassinate Mugabe and has been subjected to numerous arrests. The reaction of the West to these two marred elections in Zimbabwe and Uganda displays classic double standard; Mugabe was condemned and economic sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe, while Museveni continued to be a darling of the West, with massive foreign aid to prop up his government. Thus, principles of free and fair elections are not to be applied universally, they are more important for removing regimes that are ‘difficult’.

Perhaps no episode shows more glaringly the double standards of the US and the UK governments than their condemnation of Zimbabwe for joining the war in the Congo in 1998. It would be remembered that after assisting Laurent Kabila gain power, Uganda and Rwanda fell out with the newly installed and internationally recognised Kinshasa regime. Because of the emerging differences, Museveni and Kagame re-invaded the Congo to topple Kabila, in clear violation of international laws. In August 1998 Mugabe sent the Zimbabwean Army to join Angola and Namibia in defending Kabila against the foreign aggression of Kagame and Museveni. Clearly, an independent and sovereign Congo had all the rights to seek and use military assistance from anywhere to foil the foreign aggression in her territory, and common sense dictates that the international community would have rebuked and even punished Rwanda and Uganda for their aggression while commending Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe for coming to the assistance of the Congo.

As it turned out, it was Mugabe who was singled out for condemnation for his expedition in the Congo. Uganda and Rwanda continued to be the darlings of the West, receiving generous foreign aid, with their leaders held out as examples of the new breed of dynamic African leaders. Double standard by its very nature defies common sense!

A more recent example of double standards can be seen in the reaction to the last general election in Kenya in December 2007, which preceded the election in Zimbabwe by a couple of months. On 30 December 2007 the Electoral Commission of Kenya declared Kibaki the winner of the hotly disputed Presidential election and he was hastily sworn in. The State Department (the US Ministry of Foreign Affairs) quickly congratulated Kibaki and called on Kenyans to accept the outcome, even as international election observers expressed doubt about the tallying of the presidential ballots, and Kenyans took to the streets to dispute the presidential results. It has now come to light that the International Republican Institute had conducted, on the behest of the US government, an exit poll in Kenya and found that Raila Odinga won the election by six percentage points. The Institute, which received funding from the US government, had signed a contract to the effect that it would consult with the US embassy before releasing the exit poll results, taking into account the poll’s technical quality and ‘other key diplomatic interests’. As it turned out, the exit poll results were withheld seemingly on an order from the US government, only to be released one year later, when they cannot have an impact! Releasing the exit poll results on time might have helped the situation, either by forcing the Electoral Commission to seek a more accurate ballot tally, or by shortening the power-sharing negotiation and thus saving some lives. But the exit poll would have also strengthened the hand of Raila Odinga, the opposition presidential candidate, who ‘was viewed sceptically by some in Washington because of his flamboyant manner and his background: he was educated in East Germany and named his son after Fidel Castro’ (New York Times, January 30 2009). Obviously to the US, independence of mind is considered far worse a crime than subverting the will of the people expressed through the ballot box, and the US had no qualm in contributing to the subversion through a tactical withholding of key information from the public and by rushing to congratulate the ‘winner’ in a clearly flawed election.

The contrast in the position taken by the West in the aftermath of the bungled elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe is also instructive. As for Kenya, the US and UK made it clear that the responsibility for breaking the impasse is shared equally between the two protagonists, namely Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga. The West was careful not to lay blame on the Kibaki government which presided over the flawed and bungled elections and retained power through them. In Zimbabwe however, responsibility for the bungled election was put squarely on Mr Mugabe, and support for Mr Tsvangirai was openly expressed.

In his first decade in power, Mugabe was also the darling of the West. He maintained the same economic structure that he inherited from the Ian Smith regime, even though he expanded social services and funded one of the best educational systems in Africa. His human rights record during this period was no better than his subsequent record in the 2000s, and some may argue, with a good measure of justification, that Mugabe’s regime in the 1980s had a worse human rights record than in the 1990s and 2000s. In early 1980s he presided over operation Gukurahundi which resulted in a massacre in Matebeleland. Still, the West then promoted Mugabe as a model African leader; he was knighted by the Queen of England and given numerous honorary degrees by Western Universities. But that was before he made a U-turn on structural adjustment and forcefully seized land from white farmers. There is a clear double standard in closing eyes to the operation Gukurahundi but coming out in a frenzy of condemnation when land is seized and liberal economic policy reversed.


Many people think that what earned Mugabe the odium of the West was the land seizure that took place in early 2000s. While this played a significant role, the reversal of the economic structural adjustment programme (ESAP) contributed significantly towards economic sanctions, first imposed by the IMF and quickly joined by the US and other Western governments.

It is important to go back to 1991, when Zimbabwe, at the instigation of the World Bank, introduced ESAP. This policy led to massive economic hardship for the people of Zimbabwe. Poverty and unemployment increased at unsustainable levels. The government privatised publicly owned companies, de-regulated the economy, removed protection to its manufacturing industries and introduced user fee charges in the social services, while at the same time reducing subsidies to curb government expenditure. The folly of this one-size-fits-all World Bank/IMF policy has been extensively discussed by many elsewhere. In most cases, a government needed to resort to autocratic tendencies to be able to implement these drastic measures. External pressure, both economic and political, to force countries to sign into structural adjustment programmes was always enormous and in most cases unbearable.

True to form, implementation of ESAP went hand in hand with increased political resistance to Mugabe’s government and an increase in autocratic tendencies on his part. The Trade Union grew in strength and the War Veterans increased their agitation for land re-distribution, a process that had been going on at a snail’s pace. Mugabe was facing strong political challenges from many fronts and was looking for a way to hold on to power.

In 2001 Mugabe officially ditched ESAP, and indicated his intention to increase the role of government in the management of all sectors of the economy. Immediately the IMF suspended cooperation with Zimbabwe, urged Mugabe to revert back to ESAP and offered to assist should the regime revive ESAP. The US Congress passed a bill called Zimbabwe Democracy and Recovery Bill of 2001, which was quickly signed into law, effectively imposing extensive sanctions on Zimbabwe and extending financial and other support to the opposition movement.

While this was taking place, Mugabe allowed a fast-tracking seizure of land from 2000 to 2003, insisting that Zimbabwe would compensate white farmers for development they had made on the land only, and that it was the responsibility of the UK, the former colonial master who presided over the land seizure from black Zimbabweans in the past, to compensate the farmers for the value of the land. Much has been written about the process, merits and de-merits of the 2000-3 land re-distribution (see for example Mamdani (2008) Lesson of Zimbabwe in London Review of Books Vol 30, No. 23).

It is important to remember the historical context of the land question in Zimbabwe, and the fact that freedom fighting in Zimbabwe was largely a clamour for land re-possession. Whether land reform makes economic sense is an issue that can continue to be debated. There are some who think that development means urbanisation and reduction of the number of farmers and thus conclude that the land reform that Mugabe undertook is taking Zimbabwe backwards. Others think that land reform was a mistake from the efficiency point of view in that white farmers were better established to produce efficiently and thus contribute more to the national economy than the new inexperienced black farmers. The important issue here is that land is not simply an economic issue; it is foremost a political issue with immense historical significance. Mugabe is sometimes accused of exploiting the land issue for his political advantage, an accusation that implicitly admits that land had remained an unresolved political issue in Zimbabwe crying for political action. Even if we look at the economics rather than the politics of land, it would be a mistake to exclusively focus on efficiency and ignore the important economic issue of equity.

An important issue in relation to land reform in Zimbabwe is that of human rights. Violence and arbitrariness accompanied the reforms, and white farmers who individually were not responsible for the historical injustices were violently thrown from the farms they owned. Responsibility for this violence does not exclusively lie with Mugabe’s government. The UK government remains responsible for funding land re-distribution to redress this odious colonial legacy, a responsibility that it had committed itself to but later reneged.

At the end of the day, the merits and demerits of economic policy and land policy in Zimbabwe are matters to be resolved democratically by Zimbabweans. Foreign funding of NGOs and political parties opposed to the government on the one hand, and the sanctions and freezing of assets that belong to government officials and their supporters (including an Anglican Bishop who backed Mugabe publicly) on the other, do not create a free and fair democratic space for Zimbabweans to discuss and resolve these issues.


International efforts to promote democracy and human rights must be accepted and encouraged, but these must not be allowed to be used abusively as a selective instrument of punishing governments that chart out an independent path for their own people. We must laud human rights activists who tirelessly campaign against injustices anywhere, but we must also be wary of governments that use the noble cause of human rights to push for hegemony which itself negates the very essence of human equality and justice. A litmus test for the misuse of the human rights agenda is the extent to which one allows double standards in one’s position. Human rights and democracy are universal values and must be championed everywhere, in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Tanzania, the US, Zimbabwe, everywhere, without bias and without ulterior motives of promoting right wing politics or the so called liberal imperialism.

As for Zimbabwe, let us ask ourselves these questions: How many governments in Africa would survive a free and fair election if the UK and its allies selectively employ the same strategy they used against the Zimbabwean government? Is it any surprise that African governments seem to be more accountable to foreign powers than to their own citizens? Is a world order in which governments of some countries are more accountable to foreign powers than to their citizens a democratic world order? How can one fight for democracy within a country and at the same time ignore an undemocratic world order, an order that in its very essence undermines democracy in the same countries we wish to democratise? If there is to be an international campaign and action for human rights and democracy, as there ought to be, shouldn’t it be a universal campaign and action rather than a selective one?

* Adolf Mkenda is in the department of economics at the University of Dar es Salaam.
* This article first appeared in the maiden issue of CHEMCHEMI, Bulletin of the Mwalimu Nyerere Professorial Chair in Pan African Studies of the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

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