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).