Why Zimbabwe?

President Robert Mugabe. Photo by Gregg Carlstrom under a CC Licence

Africa may well be a continent that is routinely marginalized by most of the media in the outside world, but Zimbabwe is one of the few exceptions to the rule. Isolated murmurs in the Western media about democratic shortcomings in the 1990s gave way to much more substantive coverage in 2000 when President Robert Mugabe began pursuing aggressive land reforms that saw white farmers ejected from their land (a number were killed). Media interest in Zimbabwe continued to grow beyond this point, with coverage focusing largely on political turmoil and oppression, peaking (for the time being) with the controversial elections of 2008. On balance, few countries in Africa (perhaps only South Africa and Egypt) can match the levels of media coverage in Western countries devoted to Zimbabwe. But why the interest?

Coverage is, of course, to a large degree, a reflection of policy interest. The existence of a ‘free’ press notwithstanding, the media tend to take many of their cues on how to look at (and whether to look at) foreign policy issues from the policymakers in their ‘home’ countries. Zimbabwe is certainly not found wanting in this regard. It was the only African mention on Condoleeza Rice’s ‘outposts of tyranny’ list, and while red carpets are regularly rolled out for leaders with arguably worse democratic and human rights records than Zimbabwe, Mugabe is treated as a pariah. He is banned from travelling to the EU, for example, and the UK’s Prince Charles and former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, have both found themselves in deep public relations trouble for shaking hands with Robert Mugabe, and were forced to make excuses (Prince Charles was ‘taken by surprise’ while Jack Straw claimed it was too dark to see with whom he was shaking hands). Zimbabwe appears to occupy a unique place in Western consciousness – a place reserved for those reviled as the ‘world’s worst dictators’.

Indeed, much has been made of Zimbabwe’s democratic shortcomings – the suppression of dissent, the intimidation of political opponents, and the rigging of elections. While these are certainly valid criticisms, the selectiveness with which countries are held to certain democratic standards naturally calls into question the motives of those making the assertions. The actions of regimes with considerably worse democratic records tend to be swept under the rug, or result in little more than a mild expression of criticism.

North Africa was a case in point (at least until the wave of the so-called ‘Arab spring’), but such double-standards are equally apparent in much of sub-Saharan Africa as well. Deaths associated with election-related violence have far outnumbered Zimbabwe in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Togo, and yet none of these cases could compare with Zimbabwe in terms of levels of media concern and indignation. The same can be said in cases where ruling party control over the electoral process remains arguably tighter than that in Zimbabwe, such as Eritrea, Angola, Chad and Rwanda. For all of the intimidation and alleged rigging, in Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections, there was at least a sufficient degree of ‘freedom’ to allow the incumbent to lose the first round of the voting.

So then what are the real reasons behind the media interest? Western strategic and economic interests do not serve as particularly convincing explanations, considering that, relatively speaking, Zimbabwe does not appear to have a great deal to offer in this regard. It does have some diamonds and was once known as the breadbasket of southern Africa, but in terms of size, population, geostrategic significance, resources and ease of access, for example, a country such as Nigeria – a regional power that accounts for as much as 20 percent of US oil imports – could be expected to attract considerably more attention. Yet in the first ten years of the new millennium, the amount of coverage the New York Times devoted to Zimbabwe was more than double the amount it devoted to Nigeria.

A much more credible explanation can be found in Mugabe’s refusal to play ball with powerful Western governments. His impassioned railings against the West, in perfect English, undoubtedly designed to help shore up support within Zimbabwe, certainly raise his ‘public enemy’ credentials in Western countries. It is also interesting that it took the expulsion and killing of white farmers (rather than the political oppression of the black population) for Zimbabwe to begin to take a prominent place on Western media agendas, this was a key trigger event for attention.

Zimbabwe is hardly a geostrategic threat to the West, but Mugabe’s badmouthing and attempts to whip up opposition to Western policies threaten to tarnish the image of certain Western countries. This cannot be ignored, and thus enhanced punitive measures focusing on ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’ are typically employed. Mugabe remains one of the most popular ‘bad guys’ on the continent (despite Joseph Kony’s star rising) – a leader that people love to hate.

(This article was originally posted on the recently established Southern African Peace and Security Blog. It is just starting to take off, but is well worth a visit).

One Response to “Why Zimbabwe?”

  1. MiMi Poulin of Maine Says:

    Why can’t we all just get along and be happy with all our differences. I can’t force anyone to see things my way nor can I accept everyones thinking of how to live. I do know this we must stop anyone who hurts someone else for thinking the way they do. We as a world must stop hurting each other all the time why war why killing why rape why mame why controle.Stop the controle live peacefully and let us all get along what is wrong with our goverments always wanting to controle everyone and everything we do.If we are not hurting each other let us live in peace and harmony. We are killing each other for property and material things.We are killing our world of humanity.What is wrong with the people we allect to goverment.There is way to much greed going on.Lets just help each other live as we want to,If one is not happy with their life and where they live let them leave and live where they want is peace.Stop making people live the way you want them to if they aren’t hurting anyone leave them alone.We only need to help those who want to be helped an not because we want something they have. Stop the war Stop the ulterior motives for help and start helping to heal this WORLD.STOP KILLING PEOPLE FOR THINKING DIFFERENT STOP TRYING TO BE NUMBER ONE ALL THE TIME. IF WOMAN WANT TO BE EDUCATED IN ANOTHER COUNTRY WHY DON’T THE MEN LET THEM THEY CAN ONLY HELP WITH THE BILLS. MEN HAVE TO STOP THIS CONTROL ISSUE.WE LOVE THEM AS WE LOVE OUR CREATOR AND SO MEN SHOULD LOVE GOD AS THE LOVE AND RESPECT WOMAN.WE ARE HEADED INTO THE WORST WAR EVER KNOW TO MAN BECAUSE OF MAN AN GREED ALONG WITH CONTROL.STOP BEFORE IT IS TO LATE PLEASE STOP THIS I WANT TO CHANGE YOU CONTROL YOU OWN YOU ATTITUDE.PLEASE EVERYONE STOP THIS BEFORE IT IS TO LATE FOR ALL OF US AND OUR CHILDREN.I WANT TO LIVE HERE AND BE HAPPY TO EVERYONE WHO LIVES IN THIS WORLD AND THEIR WAYS OF LIFE, PLEASE EVERYONE WAKE UP BEFORE ITS OVER ALL OVER FOR EVERYONE HERE ON EARTH.

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