A lot of people really do not like Robert Mugabe. Now, moving on to matters of interest and importance….
The Problem of Defiance
“Mugabe Remains Defiant,” read the subtitle of a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, from July 14, 2009, written by U.S. Ambassador Gene Cretz, and published by WikiLeaks. (A lot of people also do not like Julian Assange, which is also not without its own incredible insignificance.) The occasion was the Summit of the African Union held in Sirte. On the sidelines of the event, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, met with Zimbabwe’s President Robert G. Mugabe on July 2, 2009. The U.S. was about to get a lesson in the meaning of dignity.
Dignity: A U.S. National Security Strategic Concern
The U.S. has its own ideas about “dignity”–well, maybe not ideas articulated as such, but certainly it has uses for the word.
On the White House blog, on “The Future of America’s Partnership with Sub-Saharan Africa,” the word “dignity” appears twice, in a short post. In “Obama’s Speech in Ghana,” Obama mentions “dignity” twice. In both cases, at least once the word “dignity” is paired with “opportunity”. Dignity, paired with “lucky chances”.
In the May 2010 National Security Strategy published by the White House, the word “dignity” appears 14 times, and twice in relation to Africa or a part of Africa. (Of course some variation of “terror”–terrorism, terrorist, etc.–appears 57 times.) The document never spells out what the U.S. political leadership means by dignity. If there is any indication at all of a working assumption, it is that dignity is somehow the result of health programs, clean water and food security (pps. 5, 39)–as if it were a material condition of life. In other instances, dignity in U.S. national security strategy arises from “combating poverty” (p. 35), which produces the cringe-worthy suggestion that somehow poor people lack dignity (and rich Americans, well, they must have an awful lot of dignity instead). The pattern is there, “the dignity that comes with development” (p. 36). Apparently underdevelopment is a threat to U.S. national security because it produces The Peoples Without Dignity who get these crazy notions in their heads about attacking U.S. interests. So the bad news is that places like Africa currently suffer from a dignity-deficit, but the good news is that with enough investment Africans can bridge the dignity gap by achieving greater material prosperity, that is, becoming more like the image we still hold of ourselves, food stamps regardless.
Dignity in Defiance: A Lesson from Zimbabwe
Sometimes Western nations like to impose sanctions, and then more sanctions, and then even tighter sanctions, just to see how much “dignity” a “poor” and “weak” nation can lose before wills are bent the right way West. The idea is that some in those nations will finally break when they lose all of their materially-defined “dignity” (in U.S. terms), and hopefully begin to cry out for help from the very white people strangling their nations. The idea seems to work, as a cartoon.
It seemed to begin well enough as could be expected, but then Johnnie Carson decided to start asking Robert Mugabe questions about the “global political agreement” (GPA) that brought together the ruling ZANU-PF with Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC in government under a power-sharing deal (the kind of multiparty power-sharing that is so typical of “dictatorships,” but let’s not quibble about small matters of U.S. epistemological breakdown). Mugabe clearly did not want to “review” the state of affairs in his nation, in a one-sided interrogation process with someone speaking as if he had been sent by the Colonial Office to monitor law and order issues in the colony by questioning his underling. So Mugabe said that ZANU-PF and the MDC had different backgrounds, “but we are free to determine our future”. Dignity, in the form U.S. imperialists cannot understand–so, wrong answer. Now Carson, being the undiplomatic American diplomat, and not a very intelligent fellow, could not sense when a conversation had just turned a corner, and he thus decided to persist in prodding Mugabe, having mistaken the latter for a little girl out on her first walk alone across the train tracks. Having implemented the GPA, Carson now wanted to know if Mugabe was committed to fully implementing it. Cretz tells us that “Mugabe angrily snapped back”:
“We’ll do it our own way and not in accordance with the likes and dislikes of the United States.”
Dignity. Mugabe called the question itself “rude” and “noted he had signed the agreement, which meant he will implement it”. Mugabe added: “it’s the outside subjectivity that we don’t want” and insisted that “outside interference” is not welcome. And why not? It has something to do with the dignity of sovereignty and self-determination, which fighters against colonialism and white racist rule understand better than others.
Johnnie Carson, now opting for a latex glove but no lubricant, decided to continue by asking Mugabe to “consider his legacy, especially with regard to Zimbabwe’s economy”. (Had I been Carson’s assistant this is the point where I would have left the room, and reaching the stairs outside, started to sprint as far away as I could.) How did Mugabe reply? In an “an angry tone”:
“the legacy I want to leave behind is Zimbabwe without outside interference.”
Well at this point Carson must have decided he would do what a good diplomat does once he realizes he has an “angry man” on his hands: he decided to make Mugabe angrier. This way he could do the American thing of making an angry person even angrier, and then write little notes all at a loss about how inexplicable is the anger of the angry one, who must have some sort of problem. The real problem, however, is the lack of a thesaurus to inform the political non-imagination of U.S. diplomats: anger is also indignation, and it is an expression rooted in dignity. Since that sounds like a positive appraisal of anger, it cannot be admitted into the national security lexicon, because to do so would be to recognize “adversaries” and “enemies” as being humans and being different, and that it is possible that one’s actions or statements can breed consequences. So, best to play innocent, and deny culpability in what is, after all, a relation between two parties. Nevertheless, the decision was to treat Mugabe as a typical African bogeyman–the opposite of the big-eyed child staring into the Save the Children camera, hands outstretched. Mugabe, with his “attitude,” will never get adopted by Angelina Jolie–after all, which mother relishes the prospect of being thrown through a plate-glass window by her “little boy”?
Representing a state that imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe (the U.S. media, especially the Associated Press, like to say “slapped sanctions on Zimbabwe,” because that sounds nice and humiliating, like being “hauled” before the Security Council, unless one is “holed up” somewhere), it was astonishing that Carson told Mugabe that, “the international community did not expect Zimbabwe to fall into economic despair”. Then…why the sanctions? (See: U.S. Public Law 107-99, “Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001”; Chingono, 2010; and this almost adequate summary in Wikipedia: “in actuality the sanctions through the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001 have done the following: blocked credit and access to international financial and developmental programmes; prevented the cancellation of government debts; ensured sufficient pressure from IMF for payment of dues; confiscated cash proceeds from American companies providing machinery to Zimbabwean farms; frozen government financial assets, including those assets owned by citizens; deterred American and non-American companies from dealing with Zimbabwean companies”.)
Mugabe told Carson that Zimbabwe, according to Cretz’s cable, “is not in despair and is doing better than some countries which do not face sanctions. Mugabe repeatedly blamed the economic problems that exist in Zimbabwe on sanctions”. Carson “clarified” that “the reason behind Zimbabwe’s economic problems was Mugabe’s mismanagement style and not sanctions”. As if not having done enough to inflame Mugabe, Carson decided to take the approach of a hostage-taker: “the United States is ready to welcome Zimbabwe back into the circle of democratic nations but cannot do so as long as the current situation continues.” This “circle” sounds a lot like a circle of those who do what they are told by the U.S.
Mugabe, indignant, and rightly so, shot back:
“Keep your money, keep your power, and keep away from us. You can pass that message to Obama.”
Cretz wrote: “He [Mugabe] angrily insisted that Zimbabwe was his country and warned all outsiders to stay out”.
Not even this stopped Carson. Johnnie Carson’s favourite animal is the badger, and he frequently likes to pretend to be one, with much hilarity ensuing in the corridors of the “Bureau of African Affairs”. Putting on his badger suit, Carson continued by going after “human rights violations” in Zimbabwe, then freedom of the “international press”….
And then “it” happened.
Mugabe shouted at Carson. Mugabe shouted at Carson that it was “not Carson’s place to tell him what to do in ‘his country‘”. Gene Cretz had to place the quotation marks: “his country”. You see because Mugabe apparently does not even have the right to his Zimbabwean citizenship, unless the U.S. approves of that too. Or perhaps Cretz was raising one of his oversized eyebrows at the thought that what Mugabe really meant is that he owned Zimbabwe…like the U.S. press and the Obama administration like to start shrieking, “President X is killing his own people,” it’s alright to do that then, no gasp quotes.
Mugabe shouted at Carson and then,
“stormed out of the meeting”.
A Lesson in History
Having not reflected on the lesson in dignity that Mugabe gave them for free, and at high volume, Gene Cretz decided that he would single-handedly work out the only correct interpretation of Zimbabwe’s history. In a section mockingly titled, “Mugabe’s History Lesson,” Cretz decided that Mugabe’s “monologue” (largely eliminated from his report), offered a “revisionist history” of Zimbabwe’s past. Revisionist, said Cretz, this non-authority. Perhaps Mugabe said “colonialism” too often, and that makes white imperialists wince, and when they wince then they know it’s “revisionism” they’re dealing with.
“Mugabe is an angry and defiant man caught up in a time warp,” so concluded Gene Cretz, safely, smugly. Not just Cretz: “A/S Carson has approved this message”.
Mugabe is caught in that “time warp” of when African leaders stood up to the West, rather than standing for them, as in Obama’s “Young African Leaders Initiative”, another body-snatchers program run by the U.S. Department of State.
It was not the only time that Mugabe had stormed out on Western diplomats (the capitalization is in the original cable from the U.S. Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe):
“A SENIOR EU TEAM HAD A VERY ROCKY MEETING WITH PRESIDENT MUGABE ON NOVEMBER 23. THE PARTICIPANTS ENGAGED IN A NORMAL DIPLOMATIC DISCUSSION OF THE DRC INTERNAL DIALOGUE AND THE INVOLVEMENT OF FOREIGN TROOPS IN DRC, BUT MUGABE BECAME INCREASINGLY IRRITATED AS THE CONVERSATION SHIFTED TO THE RECENT UN REPORT ON EXPLOITATION OF RESOURCES. MUGABE DISMISSED THE REPORT AS ”ABSOLUTE NONSENSE” INSPIRED BY THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT. EVERYTHING ZIMBABWE HAD DONE IN THE DRC, HE INSISTED, HAD BEEN DONE IN COOPERATION WITH THE KINSHASA GOVERNMENT. WHEN THE EU DELEGATION PRESSED THE IMPORTANCE OF INTERNATIONAL ELECTION OBSERVERS PARTICIPATING IN ZIMBABWE’S ELECTORAL PROCESS, MUGABE LASHED OUT. HE SAID THE EU SHOULD LEAVE ZIMBABWE ALONE, AS THE GOZ COULD RUN ITS OWN ELECTION. IT DID NOT NEED THE EU’S HELP. VISIBLY ANGRY, HE WALKED OUT OF THE MEETING WITHOUT A WORD, LEAVING HIS EU INTERLOCUTORS ”FLABBERGASTED.” THE EU OFFICIALS DID NOT EVEN TRY TO PUT A POSITIVE PUBLIC SPIN ON THE ENCOUNTER AND LATER TOLD JOURNALISTS THAT THEY HAD NOT HAD A MEETING OF THE MINDS WITH MUGABE AND THAT THE EU WOULD NOT RECOGNIZE THE OUTCOME OF THE ELECTION UNLESS MINIMUM CONDITIONS WERE RESPECTED. FOR ITS PART, THE GOVERNMENT-CONTROLLED PRESS APPLAUDED MUGABE IN BANNER, ABOVE-THE-FOLD HEADLINES FOR TELLING OFF THE EU.”
Neither U.S. nor EU diplomats are used to being treated as if they did not matter, and as if they lacked the power to control the entry and exit of persons. If this is dignity, then we are going to have a really big problem with it.
The kind of Zimbabwean that is preferred is the one who can cause the U.S. Embassy in Harare to title a cable thus: “Tsvangirai Asks the West for Help on Changing the Status Quo”. The Christian Children’s Foundation could not have come up with a better title. As others have noted by now, the cable can be read in at least two ways. One, Morgan Tsvangirai is actually calling on the West to ease up on sanctions, noting peaceful progress in Zimbabwe, and that “the people generally endorse the government”. Another reading speaks of treason: a Zimbabwean Prime Minister, gathering privately with Western ambassadors to secretly discuss how to apply and modulate the sanctions that have hurt his country, and Tsvangirai admits that he has had, “private conversations saying they [the sanctions] must be kept in place”.
One expects one’s Prime Minister to fight for one’s country, in other words, one expects dignity. It might also be a good idea that when the U.S. decides to preach “dignity” to Africans, that it does so without also treating their leaders like garbage, and like the U.S. were there to take out the trash.
A lot of people may not like Mugabe, but I like his dignity, and for that this is the third in a series of six posts about dignity on ZA.
BBC. (2007). “British Blamed for Basra Badgers”. BBC News, July 12.
Chingono, Heather. (2010). “Zimbabwe sanctions: An analysis of the ‘Lingo’ guiding the perceptions of the sanctioners and the sanctionees”. African Journal of Political Science and International Relations Vol. 4(2), pp. 66-74.
Harris, Grant T. (2012). “The Future of America’s Partnership with Sub-Saharan Africa”. The White House Blog, June 14.
Obama, Barack. (2009). “Obama’s Speech in Ghana: President addresses the Ghanaian Parliament in Accra”. Washington DC: Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, July 11.
U.S. Congress. (2001). Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001. Public Law 107-99, December 21. 107th Congress.
U.S. Department of State. Bureau of African Affairs.
U.S. Department of State. Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs. Washington DC.
U.S. Department of State. President’s Young African Leaders Initiative. Washington DC.
U.S. Embassy-Harare. (2001). “President Mugabe Walks Out on EU Team.” November 26. Cable ID: 01HARARE3539.
— . (2009). “Tsvangirai Asks the West for Help on Changing the Status Quo”. December 24.Cable ID: 09HARARE1004.
U.S. Embassy-Tripoli. (2009). “AU Summit: Mugabe Remains Defiant”. July 14. Cable ID: 09TRIPOLI567.
White House. (2010). National Security Strategy. Washington DC: The White House.
Wikipedia: Zimbabwe–Government View and International Sanctions.
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