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Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe does not have many fans in America, and with good reason. In his most recent presidential election last March, he banned the right to assemble in public, forbade any criticism of his government in the press and used violent thugs to intimidate his opponents. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum attributes numerous political murders to Mugabe’s party in the month before the election.
But when I talked to New York City Councilperson Charles Barron last week, I started to get a different perspective on Mugabe. Barron has just returned from a fact-finding trip to Zimbabwe, and he’s ready to “explode all the lies” about Mugabe.
I can’t say I approve of Mugabe’s despotic rule, even after Barron’s favorable portrayal. But I am convinced that if Western governments think Mugabe is solely to blame for Zimbabwe’s plunge into the abyss, it is only because they have not looked in the mirror. Like other nations in Africa, Zimbabwe desperately needs a real and dramatic redistribution of land to undo the legacy of colonization. The problem is that neither Mugabe nor his critics have figured out how to do it.
For some it may be surprising that a local politician would meddle in foreign affairs, but in New York City politics this is routine. Last month Mayor Michael Bloomberg dropped in on American troops in Afghanistan, and local politicians frequently go to the Dominican Republic, Israel, and Ireland, to drum up support from their constituents.
But Barron’s visit to Zimbabwe was more than just a token gesture to win political support. He went to advocate land redistribution. And when he talks about land reform he starts to make sense.
Mugabe is a hero to millions of Africans because he is the first leader in southern Africa to make real progress in redistributing land. His reform program takes land from white farmers, by force if necessary, and is supposed to give it to impoverished black Zimbabweans. Unfortunately this doesn’t always happen because the program is marred by corruption and cronyism. But Mugabe’s aggressiveness is nonetheless a welcome change for Africans who are tired of white farmers and white governments stalling on land reform.
Other countries in southern Africa have their own forms of land reform, some of them with less violence. Progress there is generally slow and unsteady, however, because the participation of white farmers is voluntary. South Africa, which has only expropriated one farm, expects to transfer 30 percent of the farmland to black farmers by 2015. But this reform is not only too slow and too small, it is also plagued by white farmers who inflate the value of their land to make a profit.
According to Barron, Western governments hate Mugabe not for his human rights abuses, but because “he is setting the example by showing that if white farmers don’t cooperate, he’s willing to take the land back.” This is not the ranting of a conspiracy theorist; the West really does have a double standard when it comes to dictators. Mugabe’s real indiscretion in the eyes of the West is less a about his abuse of political power, and more about whom he is attacking. The European Union and the U.S. claim to be appalled by his human rights record, but there are a dozen other comparable leaders in Africa. As Barron points out, the white colonial ruler of Rhodesia, Ian Smith, was not condemned for his abuses; he was invited by Jimmy Carter to see a Broadway play, even though Smith ran a murderous regime.
The white farmers in Zimbabwe who now demand a peaceful and orderly land reform were content to do nothing through much of the first two decades of Zimbabwe’s nationhood. And Mugabe himself was not particularly concerned with land reform until it became politically expedient. But just because land reform was politically motivated does not mean that Western governments can take the high ground in their condemnation of Mugabe. For all the nations that criticize Mugabe, none has advanced a feasible and timely plan for reform. Britain, in particular, failed by not providing Zimbabwe with the money needed to buy back the land from the white farmers, whose ancestors took it under British reign.
By not taking land reform seriously, the West allows a corrupt man like Mugabe to come off as a hero. Unless our response to land redistribution changes, Mugabe will continue to attract support from Barron and millions of others around the world who are justifiably eager to see the end of the legacy of colonization and racism.
Jonathan P. Abel ’05 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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