Mugabe won—Britain lost

The UK is a diminished power in Africa
September 18, 2013

Robert Mugabe: his "jaunty boast" before the election that he would step down if defeated confirmed to many that he felt certain of victory.

The overwhelming victory of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe’s July election is the biggest defeat for the United Kingdom’s policy in Africa in 60 years. Both the British Ambassador and the MI6 head officer in Harare called it wrong. So confident was the government that the winner would be Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), that the Department for International Development was already posting people to restart the aid programme and help the new government rebuild the economy. Not since 1951, when the British authorities released Kwame Nkrumah from jail and asked him to form a government has Britain got it so wrong in Africa. Nkrumah led Ghana to independence,

After the Zimbabwe result became clear, Britain’s complaints about the conduct of the polls sounded like the bleating of a football manager after a 4-0 thrashing. Had the margin been 3 or 4 per cent the result could have been challenged. But even though there are many reasons not to call these polls free or fair, the margin of victory was too wide to declare the result illegitimate—the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) won 61 per cent of the vote to MDC’s 33 per cent. The election was also endorsed by the regional body, the Southern African Development Community, and by Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian President who headed the African Union observer mission. Obasanjo had been a powerful ally of Britain and had the casting vote in 2002 when a triumvirate of Commonwealth leaders had to decide whether Zimbabwe should be suspended from the organisation. He voted for suspension with John Howard, the Australian premier, rather than with Thabo Mbeki, the South African President.

Within weeks of his defeat, Tsvangirai dropped his challenge to the results, apparently without consulting the British Ambassador, Deborah Bronnert. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, expressed his anger. “I am extremely concerned that the MDC had to withdraw its legal challenge due to concerns over the independence of the judiciary,” he said. “I strongly believe that an independent investigation of any allegations of election irregularities would be required for the election result to be deemed credible.”

It won’t happen. Mugabe’s jaunty boast just before the election that he would step down if defeated convinced long-term Zimbabwe watchers that he was certain he would win. As predicted, the electoral roll had been carefully doctored to disenfranchise many Zimbabweans in areas where they might vote MDC, and the Zanu-PF government had made sure voter registration was restricted in rural areas where the majority of Zimbabweans live. Here, people voted overwhelmingly for Mugabe.

In 2008 the MDC worked hard. When it became clear that Mugabe was losing, vote counting was suspended and only after a month of violence was Tsvangirai declared to have won with 48 per cent to Mugabe’s 43 per cent. As there was no outright winner with more than 50 per cent of the votes, it went to a second round. The violence against the MDC increased and Tsvangirai pulled out.

This time the election was peaceful but the MDC was overconfident and lacklustre. Party members thought they had only to turn up to win. But the party had suffered a breakaway by Welshman Ncube, a veteran opponent of Mugabe, and when Arthur Mutambara, a scientist turned politician, split from Ncube’s new party, the field of candidates widened. These defections split the opposition just enough to give Zanu-PF a chance. Elsewhere the party leadership foisted candidates on areas where they were unpopular, disregarding local representatives. Meanwhile Mugabe’s Zanu-PF worked hard and—a first—they listened to the people, appointed popular local candidates and did not rely entirely on violence or the threat of violence to win support. This is not to deny that Mugabe supporters in the bureaucracy and the police did not fix the voters’ roll or buy votes or intimidate MDC supporters, but these tactics do not explain the sheer scale of the victory.

There may also have been factors at play particular to Africa. The concept of a personal vote, cast by an individual by free choice, is not strong in Africa’s rural societies. Voting is more communal and the idea of a secret ballot sometimes not valued. I have watched voters in some countries hold up their marked ballots to boast their loyalty to a leader. The concept of choosing rulers is new. From independence most countries were under military rule or a “Life President” until the 1990s and north of the Sahara this continued until the Arab Spring. Even today in countries like Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Ethiopia and Eritrea, the challenging party would not be allowed to win even if it had popular support. Zimbabwe is another state dominated by one man and one party. Many voted for Mugabe because he was the President. Elsewhere in Africa I have heard voters say to challengers: “I will vote for you when you are the President.”

There are other reasons why people might have voted for Mugabe without implying strong support for his style of leadership. Perhaps because he still wanted the job so much. Many Zimbabweans have been cowed by Zanu-PF’s violence and to vote against Mugabe, who has ruled for 34 years, might bring more trouble. Others might fear that their vote would not be secret, or even that an all-seeing, all-knowing President would know how you voted, although with high levels of education this may now be rare. In the countryside, especially in the areas where the liberation war was fought, Mugabe remains a totemic figure.

In the towns, however, where the MDC vote was highest, there is real opposition to Mugabe. But many, maybe most, of the best educated and most ambitious have left the country. All these reasons may account for the scale of the MDC defeat. The fact is that Mugabe won and the MDC, or at least its leader, is a spent force. Knowing how vigorously Britain tried to get Mugabe out and supported the opposition, this is a major defeat.

Where does this leave Britain? Will it be possible to rebuild a relationship with Mugabe’s government? Once it was reasonably good, especially during the handover from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe when Margaret Thatcher was in power. Mugabe liked to discuss global issues with her. In the early 1980s fear of a rebellion among the Ndebele people in southern Zimbabwe prompted Mugabe to send his troops into the area where they killed some 20,000 people, many in massacres. The Thatcher government stayed silent. Amazed by the UK’s success in solving the Rhodesia problem, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was not going to sacrifice its relationship with a revolutionary it thought it had tamed. But that changed when Labour won the 1997 election. Its vision was global; it had no great interest in a post-imperial relationship with former colonies. When I asked Mugabe in 2010 where he thought things had gone wrong between the UK and Zimbabwe, he said without hesitation: “Blair. He repudiated us.” At the Edinburgh Commonwealth Summit in 1997 he had asked Blair to restore Britain’s commitment to help with buying out white-owned farms. Blair refused. To New Labour the idea of using Clare Short’s new hugely-funded, poverty-focussed Department for International Development (Dfid) to buy out white farmers in Zimbabwe was unthinkable. Her attempt at demonstrating anti-colonial credentials by citing her Irish ancestry infuriated him even more. There were further incidents. MI6 tried to bring in closed communications equipment—the Zimbabwe police seized it. Then, in 1999, Peter Tatchell tried to arrest Mugabe in London for being anti-gay. Mugabe was convinced that Blair had set that up.

Mugabe took the repudiation personally, seeing it as a rejection by the country he adores and abhors. He knew exactly how to hurt the British and a perfect opportunity was developing. In 2000 he lost a referendum on changes to the constitution which would have given him power to seize white-owned farms. The “no” campaign was funded by white farmers. At the same time he was coming under attack from landless, jobless veterans—fighters, and some who claimed to have been fighters—in the war against white rule. Mugabe had never been attacked by them before and when they heckled him he was visibly shocked, unable to continue his speech. He immediately ordered the Treasury to pay them—breaking the agreement with the International Monetary Fund to restrict spending. Then he simply directed the war veterans to help themselves and seize the white-owned farms. He could have done it by legal means but it was more politically effective to do it by force. He punished the whites, took the land by force, slapped Britain in the face, and rewarded a potentially troublesome constituency.

The TV images of white families in Zimbabwe being beaten and driven from their flaming homes incensed Britain. The Labour government supported regime change and the MDC and its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. The first time I met him at Westminster Tsvangirai was the only black man in the room. His aides were mainly white Zimbabweans. This is not a criticism of Tsvangirai. He was an authentic and brave opposition leader, but he allowed himself to be accompanied everywhere by former Rhodesians and others who had supported the illegal Ian Smith regime. There was also support from the Zimbabwe Democracy Trust, whose patrons included senior Conservative politicians such as Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind and funded by British companies with interests in Zimbabwe. It was not difficult for Zanu-PF to portray Tsvangirai and the MDC as British puppets.

The entire British political establishment united around the issue. Lord Malloch-Brown, a Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister at the time, described how the policy was driven by extraordinary emotionalism—from leftist Labour, through Liberal human rights advocates, to right-wing Tories who still supported the old white Rhodesians. “They lost leverage with the South Africans who were the only government who could have done something. They lost EU support and by stripping Mugabe of his knighthood they sounded like the old colonial power trying to put down a native rebellion... I saw my role as trying to lower the temperature and put Zimbabwe back into a wider context.”

What confused and incensed the British was the failure of African leaders to condemn Mugabe. Led by Thabo Mbeki, African leaders accommodated him and blamed it all on British colonialism. Many middle-class Africans took the view that the white farmers had had it coming to them and Britain failed to honour its agreement to buy them out.


The implications of Mugabe’s victory for Britain go far beyond Zimbabwe. According to the World Bank, Africa is growing wealthier—five of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are now African: Sierra Leone, Niger, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia. And there is also growing self-confidence among Africa’s rulers. China, whose trade with Africa kicked off this growth, is their new partner, doing big deals and not giving lectures on human rights and free and fair elections. Previously African presidents would have faced a wall of European countries and the US flanked by the World Bank and the IMF, all telling him how he should run the country and its economy. If the president wants weapons or a new presidential palace as part of an oil deal, China is happy to oblige. In countries like Kenya and Uganda, former protégés of Britain, rulers feel they no longer need to look over their shoulders for British approval of what they do or don’t do. China and now India, Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia have given African countries options and freed them from exclusive western control.

The growing African middle classes in countries like Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana are driving and thriving on this economic boom. They may like to keep their wealth in London or Paris and their children at European schools but they are becoming more self-confident and vocal. They are freeing themselves from the more deferential attitudes of their parents’ generation. Many are embarrassed by western aid and want a purely business relationship. They would disapprove of Mugabe for all sorts of good reasons but they admire him because he stuck it to the Brits and won.

Even though Britain gives more aid to Africa than any other country except France and America, that no longer gives it more diplomatic clout. Annually the UK gives Ethiopia £331m, Nigeria £250m and Democratic Republic of Congo £198m. But African countries have found ways of flipping the relationship so that the donors find themselves needing the African link more than the other way around. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, for example, receives £98m from the UK and a huge amount more from the World Bank with British approval. Museveni was once seen as a like-minded friend and ally. His military ventures in eastern Congo which enabled his army to loot at will there, strained the relationship. But then he also sent his army as peacekeepers to Somalia. That saved the US and the UK from having to send their own troops but put them in Museveni’s debt.

Kenya, Uganda’s neighbour, is Britain’s closest ally in east Africa, a bastion of British interests in the region and the Indian Ocean. President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and Vice President William Ruto face charges from the International Criminal Court of allegedly orchestrating violence during the 2007 election in Kenya. More than 1100 people were killed during those elections. What will Britain do if those accused suddenly refuse to attend the court in The Hague?

For too long Britain has relied on its aid programme to win friends in Africa. That is not to say that it simply uses aid to bribe governments. On the contrary, Dfid has strict guidelines about how the money is used; it is aimed at helping the poorest, not buying favours or votes at the UN. So African governments cannot use the aid as they might like and Africa’s growing and powerful middle classes are unaffected by aid and even feel patronised by it. The lives of the rural poor and slum dwellers may not be important to them. What they do care about is the image of their countries and its portrayal in the media.

That image is driven by the aid industry. Pictures of starving babies, slums and refugees are not good advertisements for the new booming Africa. The images needed by western governments and aid agencies to garner political support for aid are damaging to the image that many Africans would like their countries to have: modern, successful and self-reliant. While they would certainly not want their countries to be ruled by Mugabe many Africans are quietly congratulating him on outsmarting Britain. The message is: treat us with respect as you would any other countries in the world. Stop assuming you know what is best for us.

So where does British policy go now? The FCO once had a substantial body of diplomats who had immersed themselves in Africa and understood what makes these complicated countries work—or fail. This has been allowed to die out. Diplomats are now moved around from Tajikistan to Tanzania, no regional experience required. Africa is left to the aid workers and the Chinese.

Britain is missing an opportunity here. Economists predict that Africa’s population will double from one to two billion by 2050 and—if education, infrastructure and manufacturing are developed—it could become the most dynamic continent in the 21st century. We cannot compete with the Chinese in manufacturing, but the one thing Britain has that Africa needs is education. As African economies go on growing, education would not only be a good earner in the short term but, in the long term, would create relationships far into the future.

Generations of Africans have mortgaged their futures on getting to college in Britain. The richest—including some of Mugabe’s ministers—send their children to expensive public schools. But most just want a decent education and a respected certificate. Tertiary education in most of Africa is dire. Distance learning is now possible but I do not know many Africans who went to university in Britain and did not enjoy the experience.

But public paranoia over immigration and the unaccountable Border Agency have ensured that getting a visa to Britain is now physically and financially beyond the means of all but the richest. In sub-Saharan Africa there are no visa facilities in 13 countries and only five African countries have UK officials who can make decisions on visas. If you live in Liberia, for example, you have to travel to Sierra Leone where you can apply and then perhaps to Ghana, where there is an UK Border Agency office that can take a decision. Those journeys and the wait for the visa could cost up to £1,000 and then you may be turned down with no reason given and the fee not returned. Far easier to find a university in India.

The scramble for Africa’s raw materials led by China was initially missed by British companies unless they were already there, but government departments now have a policy of finding investment opportunities in Africa. But images of poverty, disease and war still come to mind when the word Africa is spoken. However, figures show all three are diminishing and economic growth, rising living standards and development are re-emerging. Africa now is business driven, not aid driven.

In Zimbabwe, Mugabe is back in power, and planning to give 51 per cent ownership of all foreign companies to Zimbabweans. The one consolation for the MDC is that it will not have to impose the painful monetary policies on Zimbabweans necessary to restore the economy. That is Mugabe’s problem now. His record shows that after victory he can be magnanimous—as long as he stays in control. If he reaches out to Britain for help—he might ask for economic help—what would the British government do? It must accept that it has shot its bolt and missed. It would not be in Britain’s interest to sulk.