arcana imperii :: the book of j


«the manual for despots»


Robert Gabriel Mugabe and Morgan Richard Tsvangirai held hands. Mugabe tried to lift Tsvangirai's hand above the shoulder, to join it in his in a triumphant double fist, a gesture reminiscent of the moment he held up Joshua Nkomo's hand and with that gesture killed opposition politics in Zimbabwe for a long 12 years.

Tsvangirai may also have had Joshua Nkomo in mind, at that moment, because he seemed to resist this, his hand remained just below shoulder level, and Mugabe had to be content with a sideways shake and a toothy grin. Mugabe grinned. Tsvangirai grinned. Arthur Guseni Oliver Mutambara grinned. Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki grinned. They all grinned and were happy together.

It is surreal, this orgy of grinning, this sudden, blinding flashing of teeth: barely a month ago the pictures of torture camps filled television and computer screens, photographs of burnt bodies illustrated the stories of horror from Zimbabwe. Seared on the minds of millions were the story of the death of Abigail Chiroto, killed in an arson attack, and the haunting image of Joshua Bakacheza, diminished and fragile in his death, just two of the victims that made the front-page news of just about any newspaper that gave prominence to Zimbabwe. Tsvangirai was warning the world about genocide in Zimbabwe. Barely a month later he is sitting down to talk with the genocidaire-in-chief.

Such is the fluid world of high politics.

Like Kenya before it, Zimbabwe is to be another example of a new model of African elections. Losing an election, it seems, does not actually mean you have to give up the seat of office. The example of Zimbabwe should be particularly encouraging to Eduardo Dos Santos in Angola and Paul Biya in Cameroon, two incumbent leaders whose countries are next on the elections radar.

This is the lesson of Zimbabwe: if you are the incumbent and it looks like you are on your way out, for God's sake do not panic, just hang in there; beat the living daylights out of some of your people, just because you can, and the poorer they are the better; imprison those who would dare to oppose you, torture them, and if they are women, throw in a little spot of rape; kill them in horrible ways and burn their bodies and dump them in shallow graves, or no graves, as you please; in a word, intimidate your way back to power and, bingo, the African Union will very nicely ask you to accommodate your opponents in a government of national unity.

"The people of Zimbabwe have suffered long enough," is the mantra that is being used to push forward these talks. And indeed, the suffering is beyond levels that anyone with compassion can accept. Everyone knows the figures; the hyperinflation, the unemployment rate and now, yet again, the spectre of creeping starvation -- the United Nations reports that up to five million people face starvation. But how far should this mantra be carried? Have the people suffered so much that non-bread and butter issues to do with the dismantling of oppressive institutions, accountability, justice and reparations must be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency?

There is no doubt that, even if the MDC pushed for these issues to be at the forefront of the negotiations, Zanu-PF would not welcome any demands for justice, for truth and reconciliation, even at the very basic level of a public airing of the atrocities. An insistence on this point may well mean the end of any talks, any negotiation, any accommodation. And is it to be expected that Zanu-PF will approve the demilitarisation of state institutions and thus dismantle the very system that has ensured its survival?

The result of this negotiation, when it comes, may well be a political compromise of the kind that Zimbabwe saw in the 1980s when Joshua Nkomo's Zapu merged with Mugabe's Zanu-PF after a violent campaign of intimidation. That process of negotiation left unaddressed the violent suppression of Nkomo's supporters. The politicians got their Mercs and perks. And to this day the people of Matebeleland have reason to remain bitter that nothing was ever done to address their pain.

It is in this regard that the most disturbing element of these talks is that, as with the Zanu-Zapu talks, and the Lancaster House talks before them, they are yet again the exclusive preserve of politicians. If there is something Zimbabweans should have learned by now, it is that the fate of the country should not be entrusted to politicians. This is a political crisis, the thinking goes, and a crisis for politicians to address. When the MDC wanted the mediation expanded, it talked only of adding another mediator to watch over Mbeki, who has given the world reason to believe that he is Mugabe's most able and hard-working ambassador. The real expansion in the mediation should have been the inclusion of civil society, because the people who truly need watching over are not the mediators but the politicians.

The exclusion of civil society means that matters of justice, however broadly defined, may never be addressed. Nor will the many economic crimes of this brutish regime. And there is another dimension: not only redressing the evils of the past, but also laying a foundation for the future: one of the items on the agenda of the talks is a new Constitution. Certainly, this mediation presents an opportunity to jettison the Lancaster House agreement that was progressively amended to concentrate power in the hands of the executive, thus giving Zimbabwe the horrors of 28 years of Mugabe. The negotiators should agree to a new Constitution but not, as they have attempted to do in the past, come up with a draft themselves. To leave the process of Constitution-making to two political parties would be quite wrong.

The absence of civil society from the talks inevitably means that Zimbabweans, like Kenyans, will be held hostage to a political compromise. And because the people have suffered enough, they will have no choice but to accept what the politicians decide and try to rebuild their lives anew on a foundation of compromise and cheated dreams. If the MDC sings the praises of this new deal in dulcet enough tones and Zanu-PF accompanies with soothing sounds about healings and new visions and unity of purpose, the money for a rescue package will start to flow. Inflation will go down.

The politicians will serve their terms and campaign for new terms. They will make grand speeches at the opening of Parliament and schools. They will pose for photographs with visiting dignitaries. Zimbabweans will joke and laugh about the time inflation was 2 000 000% and they paid their bills in billions and trillions and the budget was set in quadrillions.

Joshua Bakacheza and Abigail Chiroto will fade out of memory; they will certainly not appear in any history books -- neither they nor the many victims whose beaten buttocks and burnt bodies served to stoke the flames and keep the story of Zimbabwe in the limelight. Having served their purpose, they will leave the limelight, appearing only in the memories of the people who loved them and in the occasional search on the internet, where nothing is deleted. And Zimbabwe will go on to a future rooted in grief and pain, where the accumulated resentments of the past will be daily reminders of the dangers of political compromise.

Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer and lawyer who lives in Geneva. She recently won the Mukuru Nyaya prize for comic writing

Source: Mail & Guardian Online
Web Address: http://www.mg.co.za/article/2008-07-26-the-manual-for-despots

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