Foreign Policy Blogs

Escalation in Zimbabwe

The situation in Zimbabwe is intensifying following a firebomb attack against the Marimba police camp  in Harare by suspected opposition activists, most likely from the Movement for Democratic Change. The descent into violent response was probably inevitable. Even the most rightoeus opposition movement will only be able to resist through the political system for so long when the leaders of the country are insistent upon crushing dissent of any kind. It was this situation that the ANC faced when they finally took up armed struggle in the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre.

The political reality does not necessarily justify violence, but the police represent an arm of the state — not a civilian population, so let's forswear any accusations of terrorism — and at a certain point, this sort of response became increasingly likely. The problem with the attack is not a moral one, but rather it is tactical. Such violence in the absence of an organized struggle is not going to have any positive effect, and in all likelihood will lead to Mugabe declaring a state of emergency. His government has already asserted that it will crush opposition, and it will use violence as the excuse to do so. According to a statement issued by Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, “Those who incite violence, or actually cause and participate in unleashing it, are set to pay a very heavy price, regardless of who they are.” Mugabe now has his excuse to unleash the dogs against all opposition, not just those who use violence, but that violence will provide Mugabe all the cover that he needs.

Nonetheless, it is a good sign that an increasing number of African leaders are losing patience with Mugabe’ and his ruthless regime. For a long time Mugabe has hidden behind his status as a liberation hero and has cynically manipulated the Pan African ideal and the resentments over the colonial legacy to dissuade and condemn criticism of him. African leaders are loath to criticize one another because of the shared experience of an utter lack of sovereignty under the imperial powers. While this makes sense, as a certain point some issues trump sovereignty. Among these surely are the very sorts of human rights violations that so characterized imperialism (and settler colonies such as South Africa, Kenya, and Nothern and Southern Rhodesia, the latter of which became Zimbabwe after Mugabe anbd others helped win independence).

Hopefully the increased response from the rest of the continent (and from countries such as New Zealand and Australia) will also force Thabo Mbeki to rethink his failed policy of “silent diplomacy.” In the meantime, expect more, not less, chaos to emanate from Zimbabwe with the State of Emergency that will provide Mugabe the excuse to crush any opposition almost assured.