Zimbabwe: when the elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers
By Dr Alex T. Magaisa
WHETHER or not Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe should attend the AU/EU Summit in Lisbon in December 2007, is a question that, apparently, has divided opinion between African and European leaders and, indeed, caused tensions between EU leaders, with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, taking a firm stand and vowing not to attend in protest against Mugabe’s potential presence
It is, quite frankly, a needless fight, one that does nothing to practically assist the people of Zimbabwe out of their crisis. It brings to mind the Kiswahili saying, that, when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. The trouble for Zimbabweans, who constitute the “grass” over which the fighting is taking place, is that, there are too many elephants battling at the same time.
Zimbabweans have long been trampled upon by the giant elephants fighting for political power within the country, namely, Zanu PF and the MDC. Even within the opposition, the elephants are also waging a battle between the two formations of the MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, respectively.
To that can be added the elephant represented by the numerous civil society organisations (CSOs), which, of late, have commenced their own battle with the MDC in the wake of Constitutional Amendment No. 18. Ironically, leaders of all these organisations enjoy the accompaniments of power, which the ordinary people can only dream of. Never mind the claims for democratic change – the bottom line is that they are politicians and they want power. Democracy, however loud their slogans, is a bonus in the greater scheme of things.
But the greater cause for concern are the battles at the international level, which few among ordinary Zimbabweans can relate to, let alone need, in their current predicament. The first is the apparent battle between Mugabe and Brown, which metamorphosed from the initial Mugabe versus Tony Blair, the previous British Prime Minister.
On its part, the British government has always resisted the perspective that it has a bilateral dispute with Zimbabwe, as claimed by the Zimbabwe government, a position that is also shared by its African counterparts. Yet, ironically, the conflict over Mugabe’s attendance at the Lisbon Summit, which pits Brown against Mugabe, appears to avail ammunition to those who have long taken it to be a bilateral dispute between the two governments. This circumstance, unfortunately, serves to dilute the grievances of Zimbabweans against their government, which has always been and should be considered as an internal matter.
Brown argues that Mugabe’s attendance would divert the Summit’s focus from the bigger issues appertaining to the AU/EU relations. Yet, ironically, Brown’s public stance and the furore that has resulted, has actually been counterproductive, because it has, in effect, produced that unfortunate outcome before the Lisbon Summit has even begun, by diverting attention from those bigger issues, to focus solely on the small and inconsequential matter of Mugabe’s attendance. The debate might enable one to score moral points against the other, but what else it does to practically assist the Zimbabweans is not quite clear. The suffering folk in Dzapasi or Warikandwa, who are not even part of this debate (they probably don’t even know about it), but on whose behalf it is supposedly being argued, hardly benefit from this jousting over a Summit.
Perhaps worse, this has also added fuel to the biggest fight of the elephants - that between Africa and the West, on the turf that is Zimbabwe. Over the last seven years, Zimbabwe has constituted the grass over which the battle is being waged. No doubt, the duel stems from a bitter historical past, yet there are also current issues that cause tensions between Africa and the West, including details of how to deal with the past injustices, the imbalance and unfairness of the international trading regime, human rights enforcement and democracy, etc.
In relation to Zimbabwe, Africa has generally perceived President Mugabe as a victim, rather than a wrongdoer, whereas, the West views him as a vicious dictator. On its part, Africa has failed to fully appreciate the gravity of the grievances of Zimbabweans against their government, choosing instead, to see the Zimbabwean crisis as part of the, “Africa v West” dialectic.
The consequence of this is that the views and interests of those that matter most, the people of Zimbabwe have, perennially, been subordinated to the bigger duel between Africa and the West.
The Zimbabwean leadership is, whether consciously or unconsciously, being used by Africa, as some kind of “useful idiot”, who, in public meetings and conferences, is prepared to do and say things that they (the African leadership) would like to say to the West but would otherwise not do publicly. Zimbabwe fills that role, to its own people’s cost.
Yet, for all its weaknesses and hypocrisy, there is one part where Africa appears to have got it right in relation to the Zimbabwe crisis, from which the West can take lessons. In not isolating Zimbabwe, Africa has managed to retain a level engagement with it, if not some leverage, which could, eventually, be crucial to resolving the crisis.
The Commonwealth learnt the hard way, when, after Zimbabwe’s suspension in 2002, President Mugabe unilaterally withdrew the country from the organisation. Suspension was not meant to be simple punishment against a petulant member. It was, as in the case of Abacha’s Nigeria in the wake of the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and his compatriots in 1995, meant to be an incentive for Zimbabwe to reform and seek readmission.
But this backfired for the Commonwealth, because when Mugabe withdrew, the organisation lost any leverage or influence that it might have had in the affairs of Zimbabwe. Consequently, the Commonwealth has become no more than a mere observer, with no meaningful role or impact in respect of Zimbabwe’s political affairs. The deprivation of membership of the Commonwealth has resulted in lost opportunities for most ordinary Zimbabweans, indicating yet again, the suffering of the grass when the elephants fight.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC), has, however, been more tactically astute to remain engaged with the Zimbabwe government, because ultimately, it is negotiations, not revolt, that will save Zimbabwe. The on-going dialogue between Mugabe’s Zanu PF and the MDC is being conducted at the instance of SADC and so far, it seems to be proceeding on fairly good terms. It may not be the best solution as a matter of principle, but for the grass that is Zimbabweans, it may yet produce the practical outcome by halting the battle of the elephants.
But as the saying goes, totenda maruva tadya chakata - we will be grateful to the flowers only if they have born fruits. Criticisms of SA’s President Mbeki and SADC may, in the long run, prove to be well-founded, but the Sukuma of Tanzania advise that, you do not insult the hunting guide before the sun has set. That’s because, the animals often appear in the twilight and if you insult the guide before then, he might decide to abandon the hunt and in the end you return with nothing.
The current battle over Mugabe’s attendance at the Summit in Portugal is, in some ways, pointless and ineffectual. The hunter in pursuit of an elephant does not stop to throw stones at birds. So what if Mugabe goes to Portugal? The fate of the Zimbabwean people hardly depends on this trip. The important goal is to find a practical solution to the crisis, and the debate over whether or not Mugabe should attend the summit is akin to wasting ammunition on birds, diverting from the bigger mission to go after the elephant.
It is important to focus on the objective to help the ordinary Zimbabweans. Embarrassing President Mugabe and his government might make some people feel good about themselves in the media but it is important to assess whether it has any impact on the search for a practical solution to the desperate situation. President Mugabe’s attendance at the summit, where Africa’s future will be discussed, could provide an opportunity for the West to engage him at close quarters.
As it is, the debate has been narrowed down to the matter of his attendance, instead of exploiting the window of opportunity to confront him on the matters of concern. After all, ultimately, dialogue is beneficial to all, especially when each party thinks it is right. But as the tribesmen of the Sahara say, the camel never sees the bend in its neck. And, indeed, until the lion has its own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story. All this indicates that it helps to talk and hear the other side.
There are causes that are worth fighting for, such as the need to find a workable solution for Zimbabwe, but there are some that are better to let go. How best to capture this than to take wise counsel from the Ewe of Togo, who say that, the dog does not worry when the chicken runs over to the bones. It knows that the chicken does not have teeth to chew the bones.
In those beautiful words is a simple message: Sometimes it is not necessary to engage in needless fights. Whether or not one sits on the same table with Mugabe and whether or not one shakes Mugabe’s hand – these are needless fights; battles that take away attention from the greater cause.
When the many elephants stop fighting, sometimes needlessly, who knows, perhaps the grass in Zimbabwe might have a chance to regenerate.
Dr Magaisa can
be contacted at email@example.com
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