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Mugabe Clings to Power as Violence Undermines Vote

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Michelle Gavin
Adjunct Fellow for Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations
Tuesday, June 24, 2008; 11:00 AM

Council on Foreign Relations Adjunct Fellow for Africa, Michelle Gavin, was online Tuesday, June 24 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the political situation in Zimbabwe, including opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's recent withdrawal from Zimbabwe's election.

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Gavin is a former U.S. Senate staffer and an expert on sub-Saharan Africa, corruption, human rights and HIV/AIDS. She is also the author of the forthcoming "Council Special Report on Zimbabwe", an analysis of the country's current situation.

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The transcript follows.

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Michelle Gavin: Welcome to the live chat on the crisis in Zimbabwe. I'm Michelle Gavin, Adjunct Fellow for Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations. I'm looking forward to learning more about your views.

Events in Zimbabwe are moving fast, and while so much of the news is absolutely heartbreaking, there are signs of new international resolve on the horizon. Let's get started.

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Washington, D.C.: Why the complete silence from South Africa? South Africa has involuntarily been flooded with hundreds of thousands of unemployed, unemployable Zimbabwean immigrants as a result of Mugabe. South Africa has a vested interest in promoting regional stability. And South Africa could put a stop to Mugabe within days.

South Africa's silence almost lends credence to the P.W. Botha allies who warned that ANC government would be as inherently corrupt as that of some other one-party states.

Michelle Gavin: It's not really the case that there has been complete silence from South Africa. The ANC (African National Congress, South Africa's ruling party) made a very strong statement about the Zimbabwe crisis within the last 24 hours. Trade union leaders and civil society voices in South Africa have been speaking out against repression in Zimbabwe for years. So it's important to remember that South Africa is not monolithic.

That said, it is true that South African President Thabo Mbeki has been very reluctant to recognize the urgency of the Zimbabwe crisis or to criticize the Zimbabwean government. He is always sensitive to any perceived pressure from the West, and he seems to feel compelled to show some deference to Mugabe's liberation credentials. Also, as the SADC mediator, I think it is difficult for him to acknowledge that his efforts have been insufficient, and the more international involvement is needed.

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Freising, Germany: Is it true that the largest beneficiaries of the Mugabe land grab have been the elites of Zimbabwe's military and police forces? Is this the reason that Mugabe is still in power?

Also, is there a list somewhere of who these people are and how much land they've been given?

Michelle Gavin: It is true that members of the President's inner circle have been beneficiaries of the "land reform" campaign that was ostensibly supposed to empower poor Zimbabweans.

Early in this crisis, the land issue dominated much of the debate about Zimbabwe. There is no question that land reform was needed in Zimbabwe, and that historical injustices relating to land tenure needed to be addressed. But the violent, corrupt way in which land was redistributed didn't address those issues at all -- instead it displaced thousands (including many skilled farm workers, who were left without homes or jobs) and contributed to a collapse of the country's agricultural economy. Any future Zimbabwe government will have to conduct a land audit to sort of where things stand today, and will have a tough job ahead implementing a fair and rule-governed land tenure system. International support will be required.

It's definitely true that patronage networks have helped to keep the current Zimbabwean government in power. By providing lucrative opportunities to an inner circle, they have insulated key regime supporters from the economic crisis that grips the rest of the country. But others -- even mid-ranking and junior members of the security services -- have gone without pay, and are actually suffering in the same economy that the rest of the country faces.

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Rockville, Md.: Isn't it hypocritical for you to criticize the events in Zimbabwe after what America did to Iraq? What were you doing when the U.S. military illegally invaded Iraq which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis? Shouldn't you be working to end the illegal occupation first? You may brush my question aside, but the whole world sees this double standard. Until American soldiers are out of Iraq, Americans have no moral authority to lecture anybody on anything.

Michelle Gavin: I wanted to try to respond rather than "brush you aside." I think you and I see this very differently -- I don't think that it bolsters American moral authority or helps to promote peace, justice, or stability anywhere in the world to ignore the plight of the Zimbabwean people because the U.S. has made grave policy mistakes in Iraq.

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Alexandria, Va.: If Mugabe refuses to cede power, what options, if any, does the international community have?

Michelle Gavin: This is the tough question that everyone is asking these days. Certainly there is room for more pressure on the Government of Zimbabwe in the form of a wider net of targeted sanctions on the regime. But there is very little enthusiasm for non-targeted measures that would add to the hardship of the Zimbabwean people.

Simply making it plain that the rest of the region views the Mugabe government as illegitimate could help to change the calculus of some actors in Zimbabwe as well. Once it's clear that there can be no business as usual, new vistas for negotiation could open up. A strong effort, with real international backing, to help negotiate a transitional governing arrangement that gets the country back on the path to truly free and fair elections seems to be one of the best case scenarios right now.

There is the possibility that his own party will essentially force President Mugabe to step down. There are those within the ruling party who recognize that the country is headed toward ever-worsening disaster, and who want to get back to a solid footing with the region and the rest of the world.

Given the brutal political violence that we have seen in Zimbabwe recently, several prominent voices, including Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, have raised the possibility of deploying some kind of peacekeeping force to the region as well. Certainly it makes sense to get serious in thinking about realistic civilian protection options.

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Alexandria, Va.: With Mugabe railing against international support for democratic change as "Western interference," do you foresee possible influence by African groups such as the African Union playing a role in solving this intractable situation?

Michelle Gavin: I think that Mugabe's tactic of pretending that Zimbabwe's crisis is the result of some Western conspiracy is wearing rather thin, and the results of the March 29 vote make it plain that popular support for the MDC is real, not a figment of the West's imagination. After all, the pre-election conditions in the run-up to that first round of balloting were hardly free or fair -- the government's manipulation of state resources and food aid, the ludicrously biased state media and silencing of independent journalists, etc make that clear. And still the MDC won.

That said, African leaders are crucially important in resolving the current crisis -- and that means both SADC and the AU. More Western condemnation doesn't really change much (which isn't to say that the US and others shouldn't tell it like it is). But African resolve and unity in supporting the Zimbabwean people in their quest to put a legitimate and responsible government in place would represent a change in the dynamics of the crisis, and could tip the balance toward resolution.

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Manila, Philippines: China has played an important role in protecting other infamous human rights abusers, such as Sudan and Burma. It also recently tried to ship the Mugabe government arms. My question is, what is China's current role in Zimbabwe? Has its position toward the government there been changing?

Michelle Gavin: In the past, President Mugabe and others in his inner circle have made grand announcements about Chinese support for their government, emphasizing the idea that this support makes Europe or America's condemnation of repression, brutality, and gross economic mismanagement irrelevant. But it's not clear that China is actually terribly enthusiastic about the Government of Zimbabwe. After all, China's engagement in Zimbabwe as in much of Africa is about a quest for resources and profitable investments, and instability can make for an unappealing investment climate. China is also becoming more sensitive to risks to its reputation, and more likely to take a hard look at the reputational costs and benefits of certain relationships. That doesn't mean that China isn't still uncomfortable with international involvement in what it considers to be the "internal affairs" of a given country, particularly when questions of civil and political rights are at play. But there does seem to be a new complexity to the Chinese position on some of these issues, and while China seems happy to seize opportunities where it finds them in Africa, I don't think that President Mugabe or the hardliners around him can count on China for staunch support. The UN Security Council's statement yesterday suggests as much. My former colleague Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt and Andrew Small wrote an interesting piece about China's evolving approach to these issues in the January/February 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs called "China's New Dictatorship Diplomacy." You might want to check it out.

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Michelle Gavin: I'm afraid we've run out of time. Apologies to those who did not get a response to their questions and ideas -- I just couldn't type fast enough.

Thanks for participating, and for your interest in Zimbabwe's crisis. I'm always struck by how many brave Zimbabweans have been working in their own ways for years to try to salvage their country and resist attempts to make it an utterly lawless, hopeless place. Knowing that people around the world care and are paying attention must help them to continue. So thanks again.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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