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Zimbabwe as Precedent

Whatever happens in, or to, Zimbabwe over the next few months, it will surely set an important diplomatic and legal precedent.

President Mugabe (as we must still see him) has staked his political claim on the principle of state sovereignty.  He also makes great rhetorical use of the ideology of national liberation, the foundational charter of his government.  Yet a resolution of Zimbabwe’s crisis seems bound to involve international mediation in some shape or form.  It is precisely because President Mugabe’s claim has been stated so forcefully, on behalf of a political party that has often been represented as a model of national liberation in Africa, that the resulting clash of principles will be heard with particular clarity. 

The least likely candidates for international mediators are actually the United States and the United Kingdom.  The USA has little leverage over a country that has never been squarely within its sphere of influence, while Britain’s leverage has been neutralized to a considerable extent by Mugabe’s tactical astuteness.  The relative powerlessness of these two powers is in fact a good illustration of the practical limitations that result from the increasingly fossilized appearance of the United Nations Security Council.  Including some of the major emerging powers (India, South Africa) as core members of this club would have enabled the Security Council to have thrashed out an approach to Zimbabwe that would have carried more weight, and Mr Mugabe would have been less able to defy the Security Council with impunity.  The same broadly holds for the Group of Eight, which looks increasingly absurd without China. 

/review/2008/7/15/CARI.Mugabe.gifThe key mediator is South Africa and, hovering somewhere behind it, the African Union.  Neither has gained much credibility from its handling of the Zimbabwe crisis to date. Yet the African Union charter is actually quite interventionist, having been amended in 2003 to allow for military intervention in countries where ‘a serious threat to legitimate order’ is deemed to exist.  The AU has repeatedly stated its opposition to changes of government effected by force, and it has actually committed itself to armed interventions in a surprising number of cases, even to the extent of condoning the invasion of a member state, the Comoros.  An AU mandate for international action to restore some sort of normality to Zimbabwe will further enhance its interventionist record.  In this regard, the AU’s great weakness is not so much a refusal to meddle in the internal affairs of its members perhaps the most obvious weakness of its unlamented predecessor, the Organization of African Unity but its lack of resources to carry out such a policy.  Lurking close to this absence is the possibility of an effective collaboration between the AU, which has legitimacy, and those external powers that can provide resources.  There is much lip-service paid to such a combination, but it has not been very effective to date. 

Zimbabwe is an extreme example of the many African states that base their legitimacy on the claim to have liberated their people from colonial rule.  Zimbabwe at least has a robust state apparatus it is the economy that has collapsed, not the state.  
There are already quite a few governments that have precious little real control of the instruments of sovereignty, constituting what has been called a ‘quasi-state’.  Zimbabwe’s future may further undermine the real power of such governments.  This need not be viewed as a tragedy: it could be the start of more effective forms of partnership between African powers and their external partners.

Stephen Ellis
Afrika Studie Centrum, Leiden, the Netherlands

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