Robert Mugabe, the aged head of what passes for Zimbabwe’s government, is sounding like a girl on the verge of a quickie marriage: diamonds are now his best friend, or at least best hope of clinging to power in Harare, one of Africa’s once–great capitals. I have neither been to Zimbabwe, nor met Mugabe; I have been in the wrong place, at the wrong time, perhaps since Zimbabwe is one of the gems of Africa and Mugabe one of the classic spoiled characters of the region. Once a beacon for transformation in Africa, Zimbabwe is today is a shadow of its former self, the victim of a political disease that’s not unique to Africa but perhaps expresses itself most destructively in this region: and that is the disease of the once great leader — a true folk hero in Mugabe’s case — permitting himself to degenerate first into a tyrant and then into the parody of a tyrant, a kind of comic misguided rogue who fails to see the walls tumbling down around him because he retains a posse of devote, devious henchmen.
Mugabe is not alone in Africa in falling prey to the delusions of the past, of holding on too long to a vacant power. Museveni in Uganda seems to have acquired the Mugabe virus, though he remains in the early stages of the disease. Wade of Senegal, once a modest reformer, clearly has a bad case of Mugabe-itis. Omar Bongo caught it and, forgivingly, died before his people suffered too grievously. Mubarak of Egypt is another victim. The disease is not without cures, however. Mandela avoided it. So did Jerry Rawlings of Ghana. And Mo Ibrahim, the Anglo-Sudanese tycoon, believes he has created a workable prophylactic: offering to pay African presidents to peacefully quit their offices.
In Mugabe of course, the disease of holding on to power has wreaked destruction on a scale unimaginable to Zimbabweans who knew their country, a mere 20 years ago, to be both the agricultural breadbasket of southern Africa and a spawning ground for great talents, both white and black. True. the demon of racial oppression was never expunged from Zimbabwe, only chased away to return in a new, more insidious form. Mugabe’s use of race as a tool of dictatorship is well known. How he manages to hang on to power is less understood, for in many ways, for more than Bashir of Sudan or Eyadama of Togo, Mugabe is the baddest of the bat cats on African soil.
In earlier days in the saga of Mugabe’s decline, I shared the hope with some others that a “humanitarian” coup could be engineered, perhaps even by the Bush administration, that would rid Mugabe from the political scene. Certainly if there is any military meaning to the term “humanitarian intervention,” then Mugabe ought to be its embodiment. The odds now seem slim for any forced removal of Mugabe, who somehow managed to craft a clever power-sharing agreement with the high-minded but inept Morgan Tsvangirai. The power-sharing agreement is nonsense; Mugabe retains both the public trappings of power and the behind-the-scenes control of the police, the army and the economy. This last preserve of Mugabe’s – the economy – has for some years been the subject of cruel merriment chiefly because Zimbabwe’s economy is wrecked and its currency nearly worthless. Yet commodities around the world are booming and from gold to cocoa, these hard goods are more valuable than any paper currency. In its new diamond mine, Zimbabwe has renewed wealth, and Mugabe hopes to tap it. “No one should doubt our resolve to sell our diamonds,” he said on July 12. Activists want to stop him, though their conceptualization, “conflict diamonds,” applies most directly to nation-states in civil war, not sovereign countries controlled by forces of immorality or incompetence or both. The Otawa-based advocacy group, Partnership Africa Canada, in June released a detailed, timely and significant report on diamonds and Zimbabwe; the report, “Diamonds and Clubs: Militarized of Diamonds and Power in Zimbabwe,” is the best single source about events on the ground.
One asnwer to Mugabe’s persistent flouting of fair play and responsible governance is to ban Zimbabwean diamonds from international commerce. A ban, while well-intended and warranted, will be difficult to impose, if not impossible to enforce, because diamonds are among ultimate in fungible commodities, easier to move, easier to sell, and the origins of them are impossible to identify quickly.
That Mugabe will thus inevitable sell diamonds, and reap monetary rewards (potentially substantial since the Zimbabwean government claims to hold $1.7 billion worth of stones, and the country is believed to possess stones more in the ground worth billions more), will neither strengthen nor weaken his hold on power. Mugabe’s survival arise from dysfunctions within the wider region; African governance fails repeatedly to manage pathologies that cut across national borders. The answer is not a Pan-African government. Neither is the African Union up to the task of ejecting Mugabe and leading a transition to a better Zimbabwe. The one hope for this benighted country – so rich in human talent, so rich in history and geography – is for Jacob Zuma of South Africa to engineer Mugabe’s exit. Then South Africa should oversee a trusteeship in Zimbabwe for a period of years during which time the economy cab be stabilized, the police and army reformed, the process of reconciliation can be started and local and national elections held. An immediate Liberian-style transition is not possible. The opposition in Zimbabwe is too weak, disorganized and compromised. The physical infrastructure too ruined. Only South Africa has the moral authority and the physical capabilities to oversee a genuine transition in Zimbabwe. Neither the United Nations nor an alliance of Britain and the U.S. can be trusted to do the job well.
South Africans, having just performed splendidly as hosts of the World Cup, are on a roll. The world should urge Zuma and his government to seize the opportunity to both rid the world of a ruler among the most deserving of retirement and help launch Zimbabwe’s return to its former health. The trouble with this scenario is that Zuma and South Africa’s political leadership have deep reluctance to intervene in Zimbabwe. As Stephen Ellis, an professor of African Studies at Leiden university in the Netherlands and author of the seminal 2005 essay, “How to Rebuild Africa,” points out to me in an email: “South Africa has not responded well to this challenge, and Zuma’s freedom of manoeuvre is quite restricted. He is himself a Zulu, who speak the same language as the Matabele, and is close to the old ZAPU leadership who were the ANC’s allies in the old days, in the 1960s and 1970s. Zuma is now being threatened by Julius Malema who is openly courting Mugabe and is advocating ZANU-type policies in South Africa, including land reform. China’s role here will be crucial – the ultimate question is: will Zimbabwe end up after Mugabe’s demise becoming a normal country once again? Or will South Africa actually become more like Zimbabwe? These are open questions.” And likely to remain so for some time.