by Tim Black | spiked
In 2008, Mugabe was the West’s No1 bogeyman. In 2013, no one cares.
At the weekend, 89-year-old Zanu-PF leader Robert Mugabe was re-elected as president of Zimbabwe. He has now been in power since Zimbabwe was founded over 30 years ago – this after he helped lead the liberation struggle during the 1970s against Ian Smith in what was the former British colony of (Southern) Rhodesia.
But what is remarkable about this election victory is not the further evidence it supplied of Mugabe’s indefatigability – although it’s worth remembering his peers in the African liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s have long since departed the scene. No, what is remarkable about it is just how muted the international response has been. There have been a few mournful editorials in Western newspapers, a few politicians decrying the result, but there has been no venting of righteous spleen, no wall-to-wall outpourings of anger and pity.
Five years ago, things were very different. In April 2008, it emerged that Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (or at least one faction of it, MDC-T), had beaten Mugabe in the presidential elections. Unfortunately for Tsvangirai and the MDC, following a recount, they had seemingly not won enough seats (allegations of vote-rigging were rife) for an overall victory. So, with another election planned for the summer, Mugabe’s forces launched a campaign of violence and intimidation against the MDC and Tsvangirai (who was arrested in June 2008), in a bid to avoid a repeat of the first election.
The international response to Mugabe’s crackdown and electoral chicanery in 2008 was pronounced in volume and ire. Western commentators issued condemnations, reports sought to tug on the heartstrings, and politicians threatened further sanctions. This was hardly a surprise, of course. Although the News of the World had first dubbed Mugabe the ‘black Hitler’ in 1978, he had been seen as something of a liberationist hero during the 1980s. During the course of the 2000s, however, he was thoroughly transformed into the whipping boy of Africa, a one-man conduit for all that was seemingly rotten about this uppity, post-colonial continent. So when he appeared to be on the ropes, lashing out at his own people in a desperate attempt to cling to power, the opportunity was too good to miss for posture-hungry politicians looking for a stage on which to invent and demonstrate their moral authority and, in the process, take Zimbabwe’s affairs out of the hands of Zimbabweans.
The prime movers in the demonisation of Mugabe were the predictable figures of US president George W Bush and UK prime minister Tony Blair, later to be followed by the lumbering fist of his successor Gordon Brown. From the early 2000s onwards, criticism of Mugabe as ‘corrupt’ and ‘criminal’ was accompanied by a harsh regime of economic sanctions which plunged Zimbabwe into an economic abyss. By 2008, GDP was negative, unemployment was running at 80 per cent, and inflation at 100,586 per cent. Yes, Mugabe’s determination to strip Zimbabwe’s remaining white farm owners of their land throughout the 2000s didn’t help agricultural productivity; but the root of Zimbabwe’s economic problems could be traced to the external sanctions regime, not internal land redistribution.