One of the more difficult responses that I have had to make in recent times was to last week’s military-led events in Zimbabwe.
Since becoming prime minister in 1980 (after white minority rule came to an end in what was then Southern Rhodesia) Comrade Gabriel Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe in various guises (finally becoming president in 1987 under a one-party arrangement) until Wednesday, last week. There are those who argue that the comrade’s Marxist ideology doomed the country from independence. But not many of those could have predicted how badly this outcome was to be.
If the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was to succeed in Zimbabwe, this invariably meant that most opposition had to be “pacified”. But nothing prepared most Zimbabweans for the outrages perpetrated by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland between 1980 and 1987. No one has counted lives lost because of the so-called “Gukurahundi campaign”, but consensus remains that such levels of wanton depletion of scarce national resources isn’t a sustainable path for a developing economy to go down.
Then there was the hoo-ha over land reform. The Mugabe government continued to make much of Britain’s miserly financial support for the transfer of land from white farmers who then owned most of the arable land to black ones under the “willing seller, willing buyer” arrangement. And as soon as the forbearances that were part of the political independence arrangement expired, Mugabe’s government compulsorily acquired white farmlands. Much of the argument against the compulsory acquisition arrangement pointed out that there was land in the government’s possession that it could have handed over to black farmers if indeed the desired outcome was empowerment of the larger population and not “de-kulakisation”.
However, even this conversation ceased to matter in the light of the eventual transfer of prime agricultural real estate as part of a political patronage system. Of course, Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector collapsed. Unfortunately, that was not all that collapsed under Comrade Bob’s unfortunate rule. Having averaged growth of about 4.7% in the two decades to 1998, the Zimbabwean economy shrank by over 6% in the 10 years to 2009. So benighted was government policy that by August 2008, the Central Statistical Office estimated annual inflation at over 11,000,000%. Two years ago, Zimbabwe abandoned its own currency in favour of the U.S.’ greenback. This was after it had introduced a Z$100,000,000,000 note in a doomed attempt to manage the Zimbabwean currency inexorable slide down the path to shit money.
Politics was no less awful in Zimbabwe. Since 1987, every election in Zimbabwe has been conducted under a cloud of violence and intimidation of the opposition. The jostling ahead of the next general elections, and worries about Comrade Mugabe’s seeming readiness to abdicate the office of president in favour of his wife (a flamboyant, if divisive figure) may have precipitated last week’s intervention by the military.
In the end, I ended up on the wrong side of the pro-democracy argument. For, there was a sense in which intervention by the military in Zimbabwe was akin to opening a window for a country that had for so long been waiting to exhale. Nor could the case be made for democracy under Comrade Robert Mugabe. Especially, if we do not define “democracy” so narrowly that it is reduced to the conduct of regular elections.
Even with regular elections, intimidation and blandishments before the vote could sway polls in favour of a determined incumbent, as do ballot-stuffing and outright rigging at the polls. In this sense, Zimbabwe may have remained a democracy in the limited sense in which both Cambodia and Venezuela may thus be described. However, a “democracy” is also (if not more so) about how accountable leaders are. It is about the peoples’ rights, and the freedoms that go with these. Indeed, the “demos” cannot truly be said to be in charge when levels of impunity, as was the case under Bwana Bob are such that elected leaders can literally get away with murder.
Despite the blowback, then, I do not think Mugabe’s Zimbabwe was a democracy. Thus, it failed the test implied in the argument that the worst kind of democracy is better than best type of military rule. For the point this argument makes is that military rule, authoritarian or dictatorial, robs the people of their voice. While democracies continue to find ways of strengthening this. In this dialogue, our armchair “democrats” would do better than continue to treat the notion of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”, as if it were a divinely ordained notion. A part of the Christian Gospel it is not. If “democracy” is anything, it is about ministering competently to the needs of the greater number of its constituents.
Any other way, and the risks that incompetent governments face, range from the emergence of a demagogue (as in Hitler’s Third Reich, and in Trump’s America) to the emergence of interests with a stake in the violent overthrow of government. This is more so, when a growing part of electorates world-wide no longer have direct experience of authoritarian or dictatorial rule. Need we be reminded that on the back of a slew of problems with their state, a recent poll of Brazilians indicated a preference for a military takeover of government?