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African solutions

International opinion outside Africa is united against the brutal regime of Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe. Since Mugabe lost a referendum on constitutional change in 2000—a referendum that, if successful, would have granted him sweeping new powers and permitted him a further two terms in office—Zimbabwe has been one of the worst places on earth to live. It has been witness to forced land seizures and vigilante and systematic government persecution of all opposition. One of Africa’s most promising economies has been reduced to near-destitution.

Zimbabwe has become something of a cause célèbre in the (Western) international community. Sanctions have been imposed and Great Britain, the European Union and Australia have been at the forefront of a very public campaign to demand Mugabe’s removal. Nothing less than regime change—the defining medium of international political reform for the new century—is deemed acceptable by Mugabe’s opponents.

In the weeks surrounding the conflict in Iraq—a conflict that has left Iraqis grateful to be rid of Saddam Hussein and equally insistent that foreign forces should leave its soil—Zimbabwe slipped from world headlines. Into the vacuum stepped a troika of presidents: Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Bakili Muluzu of Malawi, who visited Zimbabwe. The only solution capable of procuring enduring change, they argued, must be one coming from within Zimbabwe itself.

The talks were officially unsuccessful.

However, since the visit President Mugabe has spoken publicly for the first time of the need for a debate as to his successor.

The Zimbabwean president agreed, again for the first time, to hold direct talks with Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The stumbling block was Mugabe’s condition that the MDC first recognise his legitimacy as president and withdraw all pending legal cases challenging the deeply flawed elections of 2002. The MDC refused and the three leaders left Zimbabwe without an agreement.

Africa’s record on regime change has indeed been deplorable—a series of coups d’état, civil wars and sham elections.

African leaders have been steadfast in their policy of refusing to intervene in the internal affairs of neighbours, at least where intervention is merited on humanitarian grounds. The now defunct Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was all about the politics of solidarity—not with the people of the continent but instead among largely illegitimate leaders protected by policies of non-intervention.

But the West has been equally culpable in fostering poor governance in Africa. Years of genocidal and otherwise destructive colonialism gave way to a cold-war favouring of despots, mineral exploitation yielding little benefit for Africans and an enduring neglect in times of war.

And so it is that Africans—a people with an almost universal sense of African solidarity—bristle defensively whenever the West lectures Africans on what’s best for Africa. Writing in The Guardian on 6 May, Liz MacGregor acknowledged that:

Tsvangirai’s strength—his ability to mobilise Western support—significantly weakens his position on his own continent. It has enabled Mugabe to paint the international campaign against him as a bid by Britain to protect the white farmers whose land he seized … He has branded the MDC as a foreign body manipulated by Britain, and the MDC has played into his hands by cultivating white constituencies abroad while publicly criticising African leaders.

In a similar vein Dr Eddy Maloka, head of the Africa Institute in Pretoria, expressed concern that ‘the MDC should have read that Britain and Australia’s concern about Zimbabwe was perceived as being concern for British expatriates. They have mismanaged the situation and alienated themselves from the continent.’

Across Africa, it is widely accepted that Mugabe is a brutal leader. But such matters are considered secondary to the fact that prior to the policy of land reform, the white citizens of Zimbabwe (just one per cent of the population) owned two thirds of the country’s arable land. Mugabe’s thumbing his nose at Great Britain—the original architect of unequal land distribution in its former colonies—won him grudging but widespread support across the African continent. At the same time, the MDC’s refusal to consider the offer brokered by the three African presidents (John Howard was quietly omitted from the travelling party, despite being the third member of the Commonwealth’s committee on Zimbabwe), and Tsvangirai’s decision to appeal instead to Rhodesia’s former colonial master, lost the MDC many African friends. If nothing else, many Africans believe that the MDC must allow this ageing hero of the Rhodesian/Zimbabwean liberation struggle to step down with dignity.

There was much about the proposed agreement that was distasteful to Western ears, particularly its failure to punish the man responsible for terrorising and impoverishing a nation. But there remains in Africa a desire to punish the West for its many sins. By supporting Mugabe, many Africans are stating that they will no longer accept moral lecturing from outside Africa. And by continuing its policy of megaphone diplomacy and very public hostility towards Mugabe, the West is playing into his hands. An African solution may be more complicated and even unpalatable to many in the West, but it may just be the only one capable of resolving Zimbabwe’s crisis.

Compelling evidence for this principle can be found on the other side of the African continent. If you recently received an email asking you to sign a petition in support of Amina Lawal, you were not alone. At last count, in excess of five million people had received and forwarded the petition. Amina Lawal is a young woman from Katsina State in northern Nigeria who was found guilty of adultery by a sharia court on 22 March 2002 and sentenced to death by stoning. The full text of the message read:


The Nigerian Supreme Court has upheld the death sentence for Amina Lawal, condemned for the crime of adultery on August 19th 2002, to be buried up to her neck and stoned to death. Her death was postponed so that she could continue to nurse her baby. Execution is now set for June 3rd. If you haven’t been following this case, you might like to know that Amina’s baby is regarded as the ‘evidence’ of her adultery. Amina’s case is being handled by the Spanish branch of Amnesty International, which is attempting to put together enough signatures to make the Nigerian government rescind the death sentence. A similar campaign saved another Nigerian woman, Safiya, condemned in similar circumstances. By March 4th the petition had amassed over 2,600,000 signatures. It will only take you a few seconds to sign Amnesty’s online petition. Please sign the petition now, then copy this message into a new email and send it to everyone in your address book.

The problem is that although the originating website bore the official Amnesty International logo, the email is dangerously inaccurate and does not come from Amnesty International. It is simply not true that Amina Lawal was to be executed on 3 June. In 2002, her sentence was suspended until January 2004 until her baby—born out of wedlock—had been weaned. On 3 June, Amina’s appeal against her sentence was to be heard.

Worse than the inaccuracy is the danger that it could cause to Amina herself. Baobab—a local women’s human rights NGO in northern Nigeria and the organisation representing Amina, along with eight other women—issued a counter-appeal. It read, in part: ‘Many of these campaigns are inaccurate and ineffective and may even be damaging to her case and those of others in similar situations’. Ayesha Imam, a Baobab representative, went further:

If there is an immediate physical danger to Ms Lawal and others, it’s from vigilante and political overreaction to international attempts at pressure … This has happened already in the case of an unmarried teenager convicted of extramarital sex and sentenced to flogging a few years ago. Her punishment was illegally brought forward, deliberately to defy international pressure. The state governor boasted of his resistance to ‘these letters from infidels’, even sniggering over how many letters he had received.

Baobab should know. It has represented many such women and is yet to lose a case.

Amnesty International, whose official petition last year gathered some 1.3 million signatures, has indeed been at the forefront of such campaigns. However, Amnesty is working alongside Baobab and agrees that the campaigns must be carefully timed. A recent Amnesty statement said simply, ‘Because of the political situation there, we believe that we’re more likely to be successful if there is less media coverage.’

If Amina’s appeal fails, the tactics necessary to support her may change. In the meantime, many Africans are asking that the Western world not rush blindly in to make up for past neglect. There is a different way of doing things in Africa. Regardless of what the rest of the world thinks, these African solutions to African problems may just work. 

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent.



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