Socialist Worker

Is Tony Blair Robert Mugabe's greatest asset?

Alex Callinicos explains how Robert Mugabe keeps power in Zimbabwe.

Issue No. 1881

Observing the Commonwealth Conference over the past week, I can't help feeling a degree of grudging admiration for Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe – for all that I detest him for the devastation he has inflicted on his own people.

There he is, the ageing tyrant of a country whose economy is in freefall and that is internationally isolated. Yet Mugabe has managed once again to split the Commonwealth down the middle. Many African rulers – including the most powerful of all, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa – wanted to end Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth.

How does the old monster manage it?

Well, it helps to have Tony Blair and John Howard, prime minister of Australia, as your chief opponents. Blair's grandstanding as the embodiment of international morality doesn't go down well with the leaders of post-colonial states who have bitter memories of past empires that also claimed to be the bearers of 'civilisation'.

The fact that Blair and Howard were George W Bush's chief lieutenants during the war in Iraq is grist to Mugabe's mill. Last week he denounced what he called 'Anglo-Saxon' global domination, called for the formation of a rival bloc of powers, and vowed to leave the Commonwealth.

In many ways Mugabe is a much more effective spin doctor than Blair's crew in Downing Street. To judge by the British media, the crisis in Zimbabwe is all about race, and more particularly about the white minority who owned most of the country's best land until Mugabe seized it in the last two years.

But this is nonsense. The crisis is about power, not race. The main victims of Mugabe's policies are the overwhelming majority of Zimbabweans who are black.

By the early months of 2000 Mugabe's corrupt and authoritarian regime was near collapse. It was faced with a massive popular rebellion brought on chiefly by the neo-liberal economic policies it had been implementing at the behest of the International Monetary Fund. The new Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) looked set to sweep it out of office.

Then, by a brilliant but cynical stroke, Mugabe regained the initiative. He rediscovered the long neglected land question and began to target the white farmers. This enraged the Zimbabwean whites' friends abroad.

The Daily Telegraph, for example, has never accepted the removal of the old white racist regime. The paper was particularly frenzied in its denunciations of Mugabe, which were echoed by the Foreign Office. This helped Mugabe to present himself to an African, and more broadly Third World, audience as fighting against the remnants of colonialism in his country. Didymus Mutasa, a longstanding leader of Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party, was on the Today programme last week, repeating this argument.

The MDC found itself paralysed. On the one hand, its predominantly urban working class base had no reason to defend the white farmers and was mainly interested in getting rid of Mugabe. On the other hand, the MDC leadership are committed ideologically to neo-liberalism. This made it impossible for them to win over black peasants attracted by Mugabe's attacks on the white farmers by adopting a radical programme of genuine land reform. Moreover, their advisers in Western foreign ministries and think-tanks discouraged them from single-mindedly pursuing a campaign of mass action to bring Mugabe down.

The MDC's resorts to the streets have been rare and usually half-hearted. The opposition's disarray allowed Mugabe to win the parliamentary elections in 2000 and the presidential elections in 2002. The sporadic bursts of open resistance have been ruthlessly crushed by the army and police.

Internationally, Mugabe's success, with the help of the Blair government, in presenting the crisis as the final stage of decolonisation has allowed him to maintain a significant degree of support. Crucially, Thabo Mbeki has refused to line up against Mugabe with apostles of 'regime change' like Blair and Howard. South Africa is supposed to be conducting secret negotiations with ZANU-PF and the MDC leaders about Mugabe's replacement with a coalition government.

But I don't see why Mugabe and his personal court should go along with this.

Such are their brutality and corruption that they are likely to face the high jump once Mugabe leaves office. So their interest lies in him hanging on to power for as long as possible. After us the deluge, they must say to themselves. For the people of Zimbabwe the deluge has already come, with millions facing famine and unemployment at a catastrophic level.

Let's hope they find the confidence and the means to act for themselves and end this horror.

Alex Callinicos is the author of The New Mandarins of American Power (£13.99), and The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (£5.99). Both are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848.

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Sat 13 Dec 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1881
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