Malaise in Madagascar

Posted in Africa with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 28 June, 2012 by Virgil

Gem mine in Madagascar. Photo by Benoit Balanca under a CC Licence

The eyes of the world seem to be fixed on Madagascar. Or should I say Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted? The animated comedy movie with lions, zebras and other assorted animals that talk, sing and dance, continues to sit atop the box office, dazzling audiences around the world. The world is not quite as bedazzled, on the other hand, by the goings on on the large island that sits to the south east of the African mainland, which also happens to be known as Madagascar. In fact, if the levels of media coverage are any indication, many might be surprised to learn that things are going on there at all.

But they are. In 2009, amidst political upheaval on the island, 35 year old Andry Rajoelina, former mayor of the capital, Antananarivo (and before that, a radio DJ), took control of the country with the backing of the military and was declared President of the ‘High Transitional Authority’. His rise to power was swiftly condemned by most of the outside world as a coup d’etat. Madagascar was suspended from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (which also imposed targeted sanctions on the ‘government’), and the bulk of non-humanitarian aid coming from beyond the continent was cut off. For its own political and economic reasons, France, however, continues to back the de-facto administration.

It has been a long and eventful transition. Rajoelina promised presidential elections and promised not to stand as a candidate, but the elections did not happen, and he managed to push through a constitutional referendum that conveniently reduced the minimum age for the president from 40 to 35, making him eligible to stand. A group of disgruntled soldiers attempted a coup of their own in 2010, but the mutiny was put down.

The deposed president, Marc Ravalomanana, who went into exile in South Africa, was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment. In 2011, an agreement signed by all the major political parties under the auspices of SADC established a road map for a unity government and elections. And although the same agreement guarantees the unconditional right to return for exiled political leaders, a unilateral attempt by Ravalomanana to do so ended in failure when the commercial flight he had boarded was refused permission to land.

But before becoming overly sympathetic to the plight of the deposed president, we might spare a thought for how things were in Madagascar before he was deposed. In March 2009, thousands of demonstrators gathered near the presidential palace to protest against was perceived as a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian regime. Presidential guards threw grenades and fired into the crowd and a massacre ensued leaving as many as 50 people dead.

And South Africa is unlikely to remain a safe haven for Ravalomanana for much longer. In 2012, a court in South Africa ruled that foreign nationals in that country who are accused of crimes against humanity must be investigated, and Ravalomanana would appear to fall under this category. For the time being, attempts at a return to political life may have to take a back seat to the realization of a reconciliation deal that includes a pardon for the crimes he has already been convicted of (in absentia) in Madagascar and immunity from further prosecution. Rajoelina and Ravalomanana have, in fact, agreed to a meeting, which will possibly take place at the end of June, although the agenda is unclear.

In spite of the endless political wrangling, life goes on for the people of Madagascar. But it is not the same as it was before. The country’s political crisis coincided with the global financial crisis, and the economy has taken a battering. Foreign investment and international demand for the country’s produce (not least vanilla, of which Madagascar is the world’s leading producer) have dropped. Levels of illegal logging and mining and the resulting environmental degradation, on the other hand, have skyrocketed. Poverty levels are rising and health indicators are falling. As the expression goes, when elephants fight the grass gets trampled.

Madagascar 3 the movie had its happy ending. Hopefully the other Madagascar will too. And even if this is a little too much to hope for, an increase in the levels of attention from the outside world – some enhanced external scrutiny, engagement, and cajoling – will probably not hurt its chances of at least heading in the general direction of something happier.

(This article was originally posted on the Southern African Peace and Security Blog).

Ironing out Burkina Faso’s problems

Posted in Africa, dictators with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 13 June, 2012 by Virgil

President Compaore. Photo by Damien Halleux Radermecker under a CC Licence

Burkina Faso’s parliament has just granted immunity from prosecution to President Blaise Compaore and all of the country’s other presidents since independence. Whatever threat there was of Compaore being held responsible for the assassination of his predecessor (and friend and colleague), Thomas Sankara, is now gone.

Thomas Sankara, who had himself risen to power through a coup d’etat in 1983 at the tender age of 33, was gunned down in 1987. The French secret service, the CIA, the government of neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire, and/or then Liberian rebel Charles Taylor are believed to have been involved in the assassination plot, but as yet a definitive account does not exist. Western-friendly Compaore immediately assumed power and has been president of Burkina Faso ever since.

Sankara’s presidency lasted only four years, but what an eventful four years they were. The country was in a terrible state and he quickly set about making his revolutionary vision for the country a reality. He even changed its name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means ‘the land of upright men’.

Sankara lamented what he saw as neocolonialism, not least in the dependency of the country on foreign aid – in his words “he who feeds you, controls you”. Focusing on the promotion of local consumption of local production, he achieved food self-sufficiency for the country within three years. Burkina Faso’s economy was (and to a large degree, still is) dominated by cotton. As part of his bid to promote local industry, Sankara required civil servants to wear traditional tunics made locally from local cotton.

Sankara’s revolution was far-reaching in other areas. He was the first African leader to openly recognize the dangers of HIV/AIDS, and made major (often record-breaking) inroads in areas such as women’s rights, child immunization, the reversal of desertification, land rights and infrastructure development. He halted the practice of the president’s portrait being displayed in public and private establishments throughout the country, reduced the salaries of government officials (himself included) and took away their Mercedes and first class travelling privileges. Sankara travelled in a Renault 5 and took a monthly salary of 450 USD.

We should be careful, however, about being overly romantic about the Sankara years. He was impatient in achieving his vision, and did not tolerate opposition parties, unions or a free press. His authoritarian tendencies appeared to grow over the course of his rule, and this had serious implications for his domestic popularity. It was perhaps the example he set to the rest of the world, however, that was one of the greatest causes of his undoing.

Having deposed Sankara and having taken his place, Blaise Compaore set about reversing most of the policies of his predecessor, in what was known as la rectification’. He liberalized and privatized, and made Burkina Faso one of the first ‘beneficiaries’ of the debt relief and poverty reduction programs of the IMF and World Bank. Today it remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

Burkina Faso’s cotton industry has been crippled by massive US government subsidies for cotton farmers there that serve to suppress the global price of cotton to levels so low that growing cotton even in impoverished Burkina Faso is barely viable. Subsidies for US cotton farmers alone add up to triple the amount the US allocates in aid to the entire region of sub-Saharan Africa.

But Compaore seems to be doing quite well under the circumstances. The winds of change that blew through north Africa and the Middle East in 2011 also blew through Burkina Faso, with protests over rising prices and unemployment, and mutiny by parts of the armed forces, but Compaore appears (for now) to have weathered the storm. He is also thought to have amassed considerable personal wealth, and now, with the new blanket amnesty, can look forward to a comfortable and safe retirement.

There is, of course, always a chance that the amnesty will be overturned by future regimes, and he is not protected from arrest and prosecution outside of Burkina Faso. Thus, there remains the possibility that, for example, his long-term collaboration with convicted war criminal Charles Taylor could lead to international prosecution. Burkina Faso was a hub for the illicit trade in arms and diamonds that helped facilitate west Africa’s bloody conflicts in and beyond the 1990s, and his prosecution was considered at the time of Taylor’s indictment. But in the case of this Western-backed government, such a turn of events appears somewhat unlikely.

For those who’s sense of justice is offended by this chapter in Burkina Faso’s history and wish to show their solidarity, there is a wide variety of Thomas Sankara t-shirts available online. With no apparent irony, many of these garments made from 100 percent cotton are proudly advertised as being “Made in the USA”.

Buyers of these t-shirts can thus advertise their admiration for a leader who had his own image removed from public display, and who struggled to protect and nurture the local cotton industry vital to his country’s well-being and growth, through the display of his image printed on material made from the heavily subsidised cotton that continues to threaten the survival of that very industry.

Between the blanket amnesty and the t-shirts, Thomas Sankara must surely be turning in his grave.

Mauritius and the Chagos Islands

Posted in Africa, history with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 June, 2012 by Virgil

Live-fire training exercises by US sailors, Diego Garcia. Photo by Michael Thompson (US Pacific Fleet) under a CC Licence

The modern history of the Chagos islands is a thoroughly shameful one. This small archipelago, situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, was originally part of what was then the self-governing British colony of Mauritius. Mauritius was convinced to sell these islands to the UK in 1965 under dubious circumstances: the sale was part of the independence negotiations (independence was achieved in 1968) and the prime minister of Mauritius who negotiated the deal was awarded a knighthood soon after the transfer.

The UK subsequently leased the largest island of the archipelago, Diego Garcia, to the US (who wanted it for a military base) in exchange for a discount on Polaris nuclear missiles. In preparation for the construction of the military base, the UK then proceeded to ethnically cleanse the islands, forcibly removing the entire population and dropping them off unceremoniously in the Seychelles and what was left of Mauritius.

Diego Garcia became an important base for the US, particularly so in the 2000s, when it served as a hub from which long-range bombers attacked Afghanistan and Iraq. The base has been used by the CIA for so-called ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights, and may also have served as a CIA black site prison. In 2010, the UK established a ‘marine protected area’ (the world’s largest) around the archipelago. According to US diplomatic cables made public courtesy of WikiLeaks, this move was specifically designed to prevent former residents from returning (survival for the inhabitants would be difficult if they were prevented from fishing). For the UK, this clever ‘solution’ looked good from any angle: not only would the possibility of return be taken off the table, but US military activities could continue, and ‘points’ for environmental concern could also be scored.

Isolated and unpopulated (or conveniently depopulated) islands are, of course, the ideal springboards from which to project military power in this day and age. There are none of the hassles associated with holding or running a colony, for example, and not only do they make sense in pure military terms (especially if one has long-range bombers), but they also preclude witness or interference by any pesky civilians, journalists or human rights organizations. In the case of populated islands, the consent of inhabitants can, to a degree, be bought, but opposition can still be politically and financially costly, as the US and its generally willing collaborator (the Japanese government) have found, for example, in the use of Okinawa for military bases.

The lease of the Chagos islands to the US expires in 2016, and any possible extension has to be agreed on by December 2014 (the lease allows for a 20-year extension). Crucially, the original terms of purchase of the Chagos islands allow for their return to Mauritius when they are no longer needed for defence purposes. If there is a time for negotiating a return of the islands to Mauritius, it is now. Indeed, the prime ministers of the UK and Mauritius are set to meet next week, and the issue of the Chagos islands is on the agenda.

Mauritius has expressed its intention to have the islands returned, but interestingly, has also made it clear that it does not intend to challenge the continuation of US military activities there. Clearly, allowing the base to remain in Diego Garcia would serve as a considerable financial incentive for the government of Mauritius. But how receptive will the UK be to a call by Mauritius for the return of the islands? Will their response reveal anything about possible plans in the West to bomb Iran? Diego Garcia would undoubtedly serve as one of the key military hubs in the case of any such catastrophe.

There are other deals in play. Mauritius has recently agreed to offer its territory and services for the prosecution and imprisoning of Somali pirates. Was this designed to improve their bargaining position for the return of the Chagos islands? To what degree will any such deals benefit the people of Mauritius and the former (forcibly evicted) inhabitants who wish to return to the Chagos islands (as opposed to a few people holding political power at the top)? Will the end result of all of this simply be a continuation of the same old systems under new management? This is a good time for some hard-hitting media scrutiny on this issue – in the UK, US and Mauritius.

Southern Africa in the New York Times

Posted in Africa, conflict, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 24 May, 2012 by Virgil

Photo by Francis Wu under a CC Licence

Africa – the continent that always seems to have to go that extra mile or so in a bid to convince the editors of media corporations that its news is worth printing, airing and/or uploading (more often than not, the editors remain unconvinced). This post is a brief overview of the quantity of coverage by the New York Times of the sixteen countries that make up southern Africa for the first quarter of 2012 (January to March).

The following is the number of words (and the percentage of the whole) devoted to news primarily focused on each of the countries of the region, in descending order.

South Africa:__9,247 words (56%)
D.R. Congo:___3,683 words (22%)
Mozambique:__1,219 words (7%)
Zimbabwe:____1,023 words (6%)
Madagascar:___963 words (6%)
Seychelles:____273 words (2%)
Malawi:______88 words (1%)
Angola:______0 words (0%)
Botswana:____0 words (0%)
Comoros_____ 0 words (0%)
Lesotho:_____0 words (0%)
Mauritius:____0 words (0%)
Namibia:_____0 words (0%)
Swaziland:____0 words (0%)
Tanzania:_____0 words (0%)
Zambia:______0 words (0%)
TOTAL:______16,496 words

News about the region’s major power, South Africa, accounts for more than half of the total quantity of coverage. Twelve articles cover a variety of topics, from the expulsion of the controversial ANC Youth Leader from the party, to the hospitalization of Nelson Mandela, to social issues associated with the informal economy. The five articles devoted to the D.R. Congo cover the armed conflict and instability in that country, and questions over the dubious election results from the previous year. Perhaps most worthy of note here though, is that not a single drop of ink was shed over the events in more than half (nine) of the countries in the region, including relatively large and powerful Angola and Tanzania.

From another perspective, how does the total of 16,496 words devoted to the region compare to the New York Times’ coverage other parts of world? Over the same period, Israel alone (one of the most consistently popular objects of media coverage) garnered 36,604 words – more than double the coverage for the entire region of southern Africa. That sounds fair, you might say. Israel is, after all, considering the possibility of bombing Iran, and violent armed conflict goes on in neighbouring Syria. On the other hand, the situation in the D.R. Congo, which attracted but a tenth of the coverage of Israel, is no small matter either. The country is the size of western Europe, and the simmering pockets of conflict, which are remnants of the deadliest conflict the world has seen in the past half-century, continue to serve as major security concerns to its many neighbours.

Let’s try another comparison. In January 2012, a cruise ship called the Costa Concordia ran aground off Italy killing some 32 people. Coverage of this single accident and its aftermath garnered 14,960 words in the New York Times, which is just slightly less than the total amount of coverage devoted to southern Africa. The incident was certainly a tragedy, but in terms of newsworthiness, did it deserve to rival the sum total of three-months worth of events in the entire southern African region, including the ongoing tragedy in the D.R. Congo? Certainly is worth a thought.

Arab Spring in slow motion?

Posted in activism, Africa, dictators with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 12 May, 2012 by Virgil

Vote counting in Chipata, Zambia. Photo by afromusing under a CC Licence

One night in February 2011, I happened to be walking past a bar in Lusaka, Zambia, when out staggered an inebriated man who I quickly recognized as a prominent politician belonging to the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), Zambia’s ruling party at the time. For some reason, he felt compelled to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger (me), and for some other reason, the conversation turned to international politics. Egypt’s iron-fisted ruler had just followed the example of his Tunisian counterpart and had reluctantly relinquished power. It was looking as though Bahrain (among other countries) would go the same way, although this popular uprising was soon to be crushed with the assistance of Saudi tanks.

The US government, after weeks of dithering, had recently switched sides in Egypt, coming out in support of the protesters, and against the dictatorship it had propped up for decades with generous military and political support. History (at least the Western version of it) now seemed to be on the side of the revolutionaries. But the Zambian politician was having none of it. The revolutionaries were “promoting chaos” and should all have been “locked up”. Now the Muslim Brotherhood was going to “unleash terror” on Egypt and on the region. “Responsible governments” around the world should not tolerate “such anarchy”.

It was clear that his anti-revolutionary zeal (as alcoholically enhanced as it was) was closely linked to an underlying fear of the implications of the so-called Arab Spring for his own administration’s grip on power in distant Zambia. The administration in Zambia, however, could hardly be considered a repressive dictatorship. It regularly held elections in a manner that allowed the opposition a respectable chunk of the votes, and it tolerated a private press that seemed to pride itself on going for the jugular of the government (with the editor only occasionally being arrested).

But nor was it a shining beacon of democratic practice. The ruling party had held power for twenty straight years. It had taken advantage of its position in power to mobilize state resources for the political benefit of the party; opposition parties were, for all intents and purposes, excluded from the state-owned media; and a variety of fraudulent tactics were allegedly employed to give them the boost they neededeach time at the polls. Despite economic growth fuelled by the rising price of copper (Zambia’s main export), frustration was clearly growing with the government’s prolonged rule. For a short period in the aftermath of elections in 2006, for example, protests became violent as opposition supporters claimed that opposition leader Michael Sata had been robbed of victory.

As it turns out, the fears of the Zambian politician that I had happened to meet were well-founded. To the surprise of some, the MMD was eventually unseated by Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF) at elections held in September 2011. There were a few tense days as delays in announcing the results saw increasingly agitated groups of youth, suspecting that the electoral books were being cooked, come out onto the streets. But in the end the ruling party gracefully admitted defeat and the president packed his bags and left.

This was an election, not a revolution. Votes were held, votes were counted, a winner was declared, and the reigns of power were handed over – standard procedure in a democracy. But such a democratic relinquishing of power to the opposition remains something of a rarity in Africa. And if the unprecedented levels of celebration in the streets of Lusaka were any indication, it certainly seemed to feel like a revolution to many Zambians. One cannot help but wonder if the events in north Africa earlier that year contributed in some way to the movement that swept the ruling party from office.

The Arab Spring seems to have provided inspiration to many who oppose governments with dubious democratic credentials in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. And at the same time, rulers have been quick to recognize the dangers and take countermeasures. Demonstrations have been organized (and suppressed) in countries throughout the continent, including in places (such as Angola) where such demonstrations have, until recently, been largely unthinkable. But the democratic changes in sub-Saharan Africa were, of course, under way in many forms long before the Arab Spring erupted. Although often in little more than name, many sub-Saharan countries made the move from one-party states to multi-party ‘democracies’ in the 1990s. And despite numerous obstacles, in many cases, organized opposition to ruling parties have for years been gradually building up and chipping away at undemocratic institutions and practices.

Although the circumstances in sub-Saharan Africa are certainly very different from the those that led to the revolutions in north Africa, there are elements of what can perhaps be likened to a kind of Arab Spring in slow motion in much of sub-Saharan Africa, marked by small victories for democratic practice. The elections in Zambia in 2011 were perhaps one, just as the transfer of power following elections in Senegal in March this year could be considered another. In a slightly different sense, the eventual transfer of power in April this year (following some tense and unsure moments) to the vice-president of Malawi following the sudden death of the president, in accordance with the constitution, is perhaps another reassuring sign.

The road ahead is long. Many rulers and/or ruling parties in sub-Saharan Africa are still in the same place they have been for decades. And democracy involves far more than simply holding elections, even if those elections do result in the peaceful transfer of power. It is about developing and consolidating institutions and practices that are able to consistently hold politicians accountable to the people. And this requires something of both the politicians and the people that is much more long-term and much less glamorous than a revolution.

(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).

Clicktivism, slacktivism and the alternatives

Posted in activism, celebrities and advocacy with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 24 April, 2012 by Virgil

Kony 2012 poster in Australia. Photo by David Ward

The recent Kony 2012 campaign led by US-based advocacy group Invisible Children to draw attention to Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony, was supposed to have culminated in an event held on 20 April to ‘cover the night’ – an event that aimed to “blanket every street in every city” with Kony 2012 posters and messages.

On the whole, it appears the event fizzled. A handful of news outlets noted the failure of the Cover the Night campaign to bring people in any numbers to the streets or to leave much of a mark, but perhaps more significantly, most major news outlets did not report the events at all. Invisible Children’s own website reported the participation of “thousands of people”. It was a far cry from the more than one hundred million people who watched the initial Kony 2012 video designed to promote the event, and the more than three million people who pledged to “stop at nothing” to get Kony.

In all fairness, this was largely inevitable. The act of watching a video (assuming those who began watching it actually finished it) or clicking on a pledge, however powerful, was never going to translate into a comparable level of real-world action. And the fact that the campaign did manage to attract such levels of attention and the participation of thousands of people in response to a conflict in central Africa was certainly an impressive feat. But the drop was quite pronounced nonetheless. This cannot simply be attributed to the barrage of criticism the video attracted, or the public meltdown of the group’s founder and video’s ‘star’, Jason Russell, although these certainly played a large part.

More importantly, it was inevitable because the very factors that made the campaign work so well as a piece of propaganda, were also its undoing. Invisible Children was well aware of the limited breadth (in global terms) and length of the attention span of the youth it was targeting, as well as the need for grandiose spectacle to attract that attention, and they developed their campaign accordingly. The campaign broke everything down into a simple and urgent ‘get the bad guy Kony this year’ message, called for what looked like a clandestine and rebellious (read cool) poster campaign, and in a very self-aggrandising manner, spoke of a ‘Facebook world’ changing ‘everything’, of revolution, of changing history. It was designed to be cool and give youth a sense of empowerment. Although it claimed to be “turning the system upside-down”, the campaign essentially worked within the ‘system’ of fleeting interest in grand spectacle and cool clicktivism. It was a fad of sorts, and fads inevitably fade away.

It is also important to note that the arrest of Joseph Kony, when/if it happens, will not in itself be something revolutionary. While the video claimed, presumably for dramatic effect, that “arresting Kony will prove that the world we live in has new rules”, examples of this clearly already exist. Thomas Lubanga, another warlord formerly active in the DRC also responsible for mass atrocities and forcibly recruiting child soldiers, for example, had already been arrested in 2006 under a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and interestingly, was convicted of war crimes (after a lengthy trial) less than ten days after the release of the Kony 2012 video.

The Thomas Lubanga case was an important moment, not just because it marked the first time someone was convicted by the ICC, but because, for all the shortcomings of the process, it happened without massive and passionate pressure from the masses (and largely without their knowledge). The ICC itself, which is becoming an increasingly important tool in deterring war crimes and crimes against humanity, was developed and brought to life not only in the absence of large-scale public outcry, but also in the face of vehement opposition from the powerful US government. It is a systemic attempt to reduce and prevent conflict and conflict-related suffering, and it was made possible not by uninformed (or suddenly informed) passions, but by years of hard work by large numbers of people who were very well informed and were measured and realistic in their approach.

Newborn emotive pressure from the masses tends to be an unwieldy instrument, and unfortunately does not form the basis for a system capable of addressing the world’s many injustices and problems. It can, in the short term, serve as a form of pressure for policymakers to ‘do something’ (primarily to relieve the political pressure) – but not necessarily ‘the right thing’ or ‘the most effective thing’. If it ‘works’, the Kony 2012 campaign, for example, will boost the level of military action against the LRA, but will this do more harm than good? If the answer is yes (and there certainly are precedents), then are we not confronted with the uncomfortable possibility that doing nothing may have been better than doing ‘something’? Does not the existence of such a possibility then suggest the need for great care when generating and wielding this type of emotive pressure, particularly when there will be large-scale life and death consequences in a complex and volatile environment such as that in the DRC?

Some form of engagement from the rich and powerful actors/sectors of the world is certainly one of the necessary components in bringing peace and stability to this region. But this engagement needs to be very carefully planned and implemented. Would it not be better to have thousands of well-informed and dedicated people able to contribute to focused debate and serve as a political force in effectively promoting the necessary long-term comprehensive policies, than millions of people with loud voices calling for simplistic and instantaneous solutions? I would say yes. Will the rousing of millions of voices eventually boil down to these thousands of well-informed voices? Possibly. But at what cost? Will the millions of voices already have contributed to hasty decisions that may make things worse? And will the disillusionment felt by many of the millions when confronted with the complex and harsh realities on the ground serve to damage future activist efforts? Only time will tell. Is there a better way to build up these thousands of well-informed voices? This may be a good time to seriously start considering how.

I would suggest that, while working to dazzle and emotively rouse people into immediate action has its place, much more effort needs to be put into reforming the systems of day-to-day newsgathering and transmission as well as education, to provide a more solid basis for informing and educating larger numbers of people and getting them involved in some form in the development and implementation of effective measures to bring conflict and conflict-related suffering to a lasting halt.

(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).

Why Zimbabwe?

Posted in dictators, Zimbabwe with tags , , , , , , , , , on 21 April, 2012 by Virgil

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).

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