The world’s longest serving political leader is under (almost) house arrest and Zimbabwe’s neighbours are sending ministers and officials to negotiate what looks to be Mugabe’s retirement in a so far bloodless ousting.
But much of the world was taken by surprise on Tuesday when the country’s military took control of the national media and announced it was targeting ‘criminals’ surrounding Mugabe, who had (according to Maj Gen Sibusiso Moyo) caused the country’s social and economic decline. However, a change in leadership or the cabinet may not remedy the nation’s problems, with most of the favourites for successor being long time Mubage loyalists and political contemporaries.
The military’s allegations of corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement will not shock the many watching on from around the world; less than a month ago the UN’s top health body, the World Health Organisation, was forced to rescind its appointment of Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador after the decision prompted outcry due to his poor human rights record and failure to establish a functioning health system in his own country, and the president’s wife, whose unpopularity is seen as some motivation for the action last week, enjoys a grotesquely lavish lifestyle. Transparency International places Zimbabwe among the 25 most corrupt nations in the world.
But while the international community has known that the 93 year old leader must soon lose his long grip on power, little has been done to prepare for a transition. Indeed, plans for a transition to effective democracy were agreed to once before in 2013 as part of a constitutional reform process, but these plans have not materialised nor been enforced by partner states despite calls from Zimbabwe’s opposition. But international apathy has remained sound, despite Zimbabwe’s potential to destabilise from its position at its region’s heart. That apathy has characterised developed nations’ relationships with Zimbabwe after colonial guilt largely cut political interference after 1980 when Mugabe took power in the country’s independence movement. And it is the same guilt-driven apathy that has ignored the need for governance support for the last few decades.
Africa’s forgotten investment
Zimbabwe has been treated as both important and forgettable by resource strapped Foreign Ministries around the world. While the state was originally colonised for its rich resource deposits and natural assets, the landlocked nation has few direct trade relations relative to its larger economic neighbours. Its less than crucial economic impact has made the political impetus for democratisation small while the consensus position is that the status quo is ‘stable, although fundamentally unjust.’
Despite the end of conflict in Zimbabwe, there has been almost no progress towards many key development indicators. The incidence of sexual and gender based violence has not declined below that in the state of war, and gender parity also remains at an all-time low.
The overall indifference of the international community, excepting symbolic rejections of Mugabe’s participation in international civic life, is the modern diplomatic slacktivism that has led to a nation at the heart of southern Africa to hold the breath of the international community while inevitable leadership change plays out. Even as governments react to the current situation, with expanding military control and mass protests in Harare, observers have done little more than the standard call for restraint and respect for the rule of law on all sides. Some diplomatic staff in Zimbabwe, including those of the United States, have been stood down amid the tension, with their administrations preferring to do nothing and wait. Surely, this is what they were waiting for, and now is the time to participate, and support Zimbabwe’s valuable place in Southern Africa.