You know your country’s on the rocks when airlifting baby elephants to China is the most brilliant idea for boosting exports you’ve heard in years. But so it is these days in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, where thousands of protesters took to the streets last week, many of them civil servants who haven’t been paid in months. With the country’s central bank governor in Europe to ask for a billion-dollar loan from the IMF, some commentators in Britain are suggesting that a window of opportunity has opened for the West to re-engage with Zimbabwe. The Financial Times:
Precarious as these circumstances are, they also provide an opportunity. China is no longer willing to bankroll the regime. With Zimbabwe in such desperate need, there is a chance for the west to re-engage and regain some influence before the situation worsens. […]
Time, meanwhile, is running out for Zimbabwe’s 92-year-old despot. As his health begins to fail, the battle to succeed Mr Mugabe intensifies. Although it would be foolish to predict his imminent demise, there are few who see him lasting in office beyond the next scheduled elections in 2018. The moment for outside interlocutors to step in is now, while he maintains some authority over his squabbling lieutenants and can still provide an element of stability.
The editorial concludes with a call to action:
Britain alongside regional powers, should be taking a lead in breaking the deadlock. Along with other interlocutors they should be speaking not just to the regime, but to all sides, towards the elaboration of a national rescue plan. Re-engagement with Zimbabwe is long overdue, but any bailout must be conditional on real progress towards more accountable rule.
This editorial rings with the faint echo of lost Empire. And while it is almost pleasant in a nostalgic way to imagine a more assertive Britain steering Zimbabwe along a more sensible bearing, there are at least a couple of good reasons to think that the British aren’t in any position to influence Zimbabwe. First, Britain’s cautious foreign policy establishment hasn’t had much influence in Southern Africa for years and it is dubious to think it has the capacity or the imagination to spearhead a “re-engagement with Zimbabwe” anytime soon. Second, even if the British could bring their diplomatic resources to bear on Zimbabwe in this moment of crisis, the corrupt, repressive character of the Zimbabwean state has already showed just how resistant to change it is. The regime remains unlikely to be reformed in the next few years, even with a transfer of power from Mugabe to his wife or one of his other potential successors.
Walter Russell Mead has written here before of “the gray and foggy establishment groupthink that dominates British life.” The same hidebound thinking extends to Africa, where Britain has charted a lethargic course in its former colonies. A short, sharp intervention in Sierra Leone aside, British foreign policy in Africa is largely hands-off (especially compared to the energetic French, who intervene early and often in their old colonial possessions). Calling for a new approach to Britain’s relations with Zimbabwe is well and good—but is it possible without an overhaul of Britain’s foreign service and a simultaneous revolution of will from its political class? After all, 10 Downing Street can’t even handle Nicola Sturgeon’s Scotland these days—why should it stand a chance of influencing Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe?
While at 92 he appears increasingly frail, Mugabe remains a wily and unpredictable character. He has successfully rebuffed all previous attempts by foreign powers to “manage,” “steer,” or otherwise “engage with” him. Mugabe’s successors have all been learning from his playbook and are likely continue fending off the old British imperialists long after he is gone. If any foreign power is likely to experience any success in guiding Zimbabwe along a more constructive path, it is South Africa, not Britain.
The ruling ANC party in South Africa has a very real stake in Zimbabwe’s stability. After farm seizures led to the collapse of Zimbabwe’s once-thriving commercial agricultural sector just over 10 years ago, millions of Zimbabweans, out of work and starving, fled the country. Most of them now live in South Africa, where their superior English-language schooling allows them to land relatively good jobs, fostering resentment among the ANC’s rank and file who, suffering from sky-high unemployment, contend that those jobs belong to them. This means that South Africa, which unlike Britain actually has decent relations with Mugabe, has a vital interest in reducing or even reversing refugee flows from Zimbabwe, and thus a greater chance of success in reaping whatever small diplomatic yields the next few years may bring.
Which brings us to the second point, a note of caution: There’s little reason to think that Mugabe’s death, whenever it comes, will offer anything more than modest improvements to the ugly status quo. “Real progress towards more accountable rule” is not in the cards anytime soon, even with a major diplomatic push from Britain or South Africa; the inertia in Zimbabwe is just too powerful. The main contenders to replace Mugabe are likely to play variations on the theme he has written, not compose an entirely new melody. And this phenomenon—the dictator about to die and the potential successors likely to carry on in the old ways—is not unique to Zimbabwe. Indeed, two political scientists writing in Foreign Policy have found that a dictator’s death rarely brings about a fundamental change in the regime. Their findings:
In our review of the 79 dictators who have died in office from 1946 to 2014, we find that the death of a dictator almost never ushers in democracy. Nor does it typically bring down the regime. Instead, in the vast majority (92 percent) of cases, the regime persists after the autocrat’s death. The deaths of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 2013, Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia in 2012, and Kim Jong Il in North Korea in 2011 illustrate this trend. Compared with other forms of leadership turnover in autocracies — such as coups, elections, or term limits — which lead to regime collapse about half of the time, the death of a dictator is remarkably inconsequential.
Mugabe, like Assad in Syria, cares much more about remaining in power than Western powers care about removing him. His resolve is strong and he is willing to put his people through a great deal of hardship so that he and his cronies can remain in charge. Whether Mugabe lives or dies in the next few years, it is unlikely that Britain will ever recover its former influence over wayward son RhodesiaZimbabwe.