Wikileaks in Zimbabwe, and in the Media

by zunguzungu

At The Atlantic last week, fellow UC PhD candidate Christopher R. Albon wrote that:

…in Zimbabwe, Assange’s pursuit of this noble goal has provided a tyrant with the ammunition to wound, and perhaps kill, any chance for multiparty democracy. Earlier this month, Assange claimed that “not a single person, as far as anyone is aware, has been harmed” by Wikileaks’ practices. This is no longer true, if it ever was.

Even more hyperbolically, James Richardson at the Guardian accused Wikileaks of “collateral damage”:

…where Mugabe’s strong-arming, torture and assassination attempts have failed to eliminate the leading figure of Zimbabwe’s democratic opposition, WikiLeaks may yet succeed. Twenty years of sacrifice and suffering by Tsvangirai all for naught, as WikiLeaks risks “collateral murder” in the name of transparency. Before more political carnage is wrought and more blood spilled – in Africa and elsewhere, with special concern for those US-sympathising Afghans fingered in its last war document dump – WikiLeaks ought to leave international relations to those who understand it – at least to those who understand the value of a life.

(James Kirchik apparently also wrote an article about it for the Wall Street Journal, but since it’s behind a paywall, forget about it. To bring you up to speed if you haven’t been following the story: the leaked cable in question indicates that Morgan Tsvangirai — former opposition leader of the MDC, Movement for Democratic Change, and current Prime Minister in a 2009 power-sharing agreement — encouraged the US and the EU to maintain political sanctions on Zimbabwe‘s government (led by longtime president/dictator and leader of ZANU-PF, Robert Mugabe). As Albon acknowledges, the sanctions are quite unpopular in Zimbabwe, so the revelation that Tsvangirai has been saying one thing in public and doing quite another in secret meetings has apparently been quite damaging. And in response, Mugabe’s attorney general is now talking about charging Tsvangirai for treason;[1] in his words, “The WikiLeaks appear to show a treasonous collusion between local Zimbabweans and the aggressive international world, particularly the United States.”)

The problem here isn’t that Albon and Richardson are wrong, though I certainly do disagree with them. The problem is that they don’t seem to be anywhere nearly as interested in being right about Zimbabwe as they are in moralizing about Wikileaks. These articles polemically oversimplify a situation that is actually quite complicated and ambiguous, and they do it by adopting the same kind of Manichaean framework as the Anonymous hackers that have been targeting Zimbabwe for its “anti-Wikileaks stance.” Things are either good or they are bad. You are either pro-democracy or you are pro-Mugabe. Black or white.

This is, on so many levels, a terrible attitude to take with respect to Zimbabwe. And while Albon or Richardson may or may not be knowledgable about their subjects, the way their articles address Zimbabwe only to the extent that it can show us something about Wikileaks causes them to overlook important facts on the ground that would either substantially complicate the case they’re making or absolutely destroy it. Albon wrote in a tweet (which I’ve lost track of) that he’s simply calling for a more nuanced sense of Wikileaks, both the good and the bad. I agree. But when it comes to Zimbabwe itself, he and Richardson suddenly adopt maddeningly rigid and simplistic categories: good for democracy or bad for democracy. What is good for Mugabe is bad for Zimbabwe; what is bad for Tsvangerai is bad for democracy. We need to do better  than this.

After all, the first thing to say about “democracy” in Africa is that it’s a theory that always needs to prove itself in practice: a great many African nations have become formally democratic in the last decade and a half, and yet the wave of democratization that swept across the continent after the cold war ended (which is to say, when the US stopped propping up dictators because they were fighting communism) has hardly signaled a new dawn in terms of the things that actually matter in most people’s lives. All things being equal, of course, elections are a good thing. But when are all things ever equal? I’m not taking some kind of simplistic stand against elections here; I’m just saying that what we call “democracy” — and simplistically align with elections — often turns out to be just another way of enabling elite rule, and that the important thing is always whether or not this is the case, a question one needs to argue, not beg. (One of the things these kinds of democracy arguments always overlook, for example, is the extent to which having an election so often means no more than the right to decide which group of elites has the privilege of doing whatever the IMF and World Bank tells them to do. Yay, Democracy!)

In this particular case, the argument that (A) because the cable hurts Tsvangirai and helps Mugabe, (B) Wikileaks is therefore bad for democracy, and therefore (C) bad for Zimbabweans, is a set of propositions linked together by a lot of un-argued claims. For example, you’d never guess from reading Albon or Richardson that it’s not at all clear that Tsvangirai would win a free and fair election, were one to be held, and particularly unlikely to mount a real challenge in the kind that actually will be held. The Economist, last month, summarized what everybody has been saying for a while now:

“We’ve done a lousy job in government,” says a senior MDC man [Movement for Democratic Change, Tsvangirai’s party]. “While Zanu-PF [Mugabe’s party] have used the last 21 months to refocus and reinvent themselves, we’ve lost our identity. Zanu-PF are as brutal and corrupt as before, but much richer. They’ve got an almost total grip on the Marange diamonds [in the east of the country] and still control the media and security forces. They’re much better organised than we are. The polls may still show us in the lead, but almost half the electorate refuse to say how they will vote. There’s likely to be massive apathy among MDC supporters. If we went to the polls now, I think we could lose. We’ve got to start fighting.”

This is an important point because both articles hinge on the idea that the cable will help Mugabe avoid facing his rival in an election which, by implication, he would lose. And this is the only sense in which the Wikileaks cable could “harm democracy”: if it helps Mugabe evade facing democratic results. But that kind of argument isn’t so much wrong as it proceeds from a misframing of the problem: Tsvangirai has spent the last two years getting his clock cleaned (by one of the wiliest political operators around), and the cable only adds to an already hefty stack of his problems, making him more likely to lose an election he was already very likely to lose. And it is not insignificant that the cable only demonstrates to Zimbabwean voters that what Mugabe has been saying about him for a long time — that he’s in league with Western powers trying to meddle in Zimbabwe’s affairs — is basically true: by giving the Zimbabwean people true information about the dirty things their Prime Minister has been doing, it makes Mugabe stronger. This is not to exonerate Mugabe, of course, nor to say that Tsvangirai is anything but what he seems to be, a human being with human limitations currently embarked on a courageous but somewhat hopeless crusade. This is certainly how it seems to me. But there is nothing particularly “democratic” about lying to one’s constituency, nor does using the sanctions for personal political gain give him much of a leg to stand on when he wants to criticize Mugabe’s crookedness. [2]

More importantly, though, where exactly does the assumption come from that “Zimbabwe’s de facto dictator” needs a legal pretext to charge the opposition leader with treason if he wants to do that? He manifestly doesn’t need any such thing. Mugabe charges Tsvangirai with treason about once every election cycle. The entire history of the MDC is basically one long story of ZANU-PF using violence and extralegal means to keep power; Tsvangirai has been beaten up, tortured, detained, and members of his family and bodyguards have died under very suspicious circumstances, not to mention the broad based political violence ZANU-PF has leveled towards MDC’s constituency. What it says in some cable has nothing to do with what Mugabe can or cannot do, and nothing to do with why he does it; he doesn’t need the legal fig-leaf, and he’s always known — as everyone knows — that Tsvangirai is heavily supported by Western powers that would like to see him gone. Inventing new treason statutes so you can charge a political rival is incredibly dirty politics, of course, but Mugabe has been doing that for years, and would have done it again, whenever he decided to do so, no matter what Wikileaks cables said or didn’t say.

It’s also worth noting that the purpose of charging Tsvangirai is almost certainly not to actually have him executed, as Richardson is particularly happy to imply. Mugabe isn’t stupid, and that would be a stupid thing to do. Westerners like to think that international pressure forced Mugabe to accept a power sharing agreement, but what they then like to overlook is that he’s used that agreement, since then, to acquire a kind of legitimacy for himself and his government (something the cable in question makes very clear) and has given up virtually no power in the process. Why would he do anything to change that status quo? Actually executing Tsvangerai would ruin his current strategy, and Mugabe has something to lose in that respect; his supporters on the continent (and there are many, South Africa being the primary) would likely be less willing to support him. What on earth would he have to gain? The most pertinent fact of the matter right now is that Tsvangerai has been all but neutralized and the MDC is without real momentum, enthusiasm, or organization. From a different Economist article:

…on a range of issues Mr Mugabe ensures that his prime minister is often kept out of the loop, in blatant defiance of the GPA [the Global Political Agreement, the power-sharing agreement from 2008]. He has refused, among many other things, to remove the central-bank governor, Gideon Gono, or the attorney-general, Johannes Tomana, both leading authors of the country’s economic and human-rights disasters. Above all, he has kept his hands tightly on the levers of hard power: the courts, still largely in the hands of Zanu-PF judges, and in particular the army, the police and the feared Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). By various means, including dirty tricks, deaths and suspensions, the MDC’s wafer-thin majority in the lower house has been whittled away, though it technically still has control if the unreliable Mr Mutambara’s small slice of the party votes with the main bit. Owing partly to the MDC’s own lack of guile, the country’s three most repressive laws, the Public Order and Security Act (known as POSA), the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, are still in force.

(Also, see this much more detailed analysis of the GPA’s failures, from Sokwanele, and “Zimbabwe’s Multilayered Crisis,” by Alois Mlambo and Brian Raftopoulos).

In other words, executing Tsvangerai would ruin a game for Mugabe that he’s already comfortably winning. But playing the thing out in the courts (and state-controlled newspapers) will damage Tsvangerai politically, which is why “harming democracy” is a useless phrase in this context. In other words, while Mugabe is an undemocratic despot when he decides to be, he’s playing a basically normal political game here because he can, because he and his party hold all the cards; to continue the metaphor, they’ve spent the last two years picking one card after another out of Tsvangirai’s hand, while Tsvangirai has been able to do nothing to stop him. Politics in Zimbabwe have changed in important ways since the last election, while Western commentators have apparently not been paying attention: if Tsvangirai and the MDC caught Mugabe flat-footed then, and Mugabe had to resort to mass thuggery and violence to win the election (and then to cut a deal with Tsvangerai as a way of placating the West), it’s manifestly the case that he’s spent the last two years making sure that sort of thing won’t happen again. It almost certainly won’t; his power is sufficiently secure that he doesn’t much need to use much violence, just remind people that he‘s capable of it. at this point, campaigns like “Headless Chicken,” seem much more like a PR effort, to remind people of the consequences of voting the wrong way than an actual organized campaign.

Again, absolutely none of this is to say that Mugabe is a good guy or Tsvangirai isn’t. But those terms are just not useful here, or, rather, are only useful for meaningless moralizing about Wikileaks. When Richardson writes that “where Mugabe’s strong-arming, torture and assassination attempts have failed to eliminate the leading figure of Zimbabwe’s democratic opposition, WikiLeaks may yet succeed,” he shows himself to be strikingly out of touch. Has he even read the cable in question? Since Mugabe has already more or less neutralized Tsvangerai (by allowing him into the government but giving him no actual power over anything important), the issue of the sanctions only arises because, according to Tsvangerai,

“ZANU-PF seems to have introduced a new tactic in its agenda – reciprocity. What this means, he said, is that Mugabe is asking, “What’s in this for us?” If MDC gets governorships, Mugabe asks, why can’t the sanctions against ZANU-PF be lifted? Tsvangirai said that it seems that Mugabe plans to use the governors as a trade-off against sanctions.”

In other words, Mugabe’s political position is so strong that he’s now telling Tsvangirai that everything which was agreed to in 2008 is back on the bargaining table; the GPA dictated a certain number of governorships for the MDC, and Mugabe’s explicit attitude is, simply, well, what will you give me for them? And so, when Tsvangirai refused to give Mugabe what he wanted, Mugabe simply, unilaterally, and with no consequences, appointed all the governors from his own party, leaving Tsvangirai with nothing to do but make angry noises at a press conference and file a lawsuit. Good luck with that, sir; since the AU and SADC (and “the West”) have signaled their indifference on this matter, I‘m not holding my breath for anything to come of it. It is, in other words, the exact opposite of what Richardson described.

Let’s return, then, to Richardson’s strange opening statement that “with the recent release of sensitive diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks may have committed its own collateral murder, upending the precarious balance of power in a fragile African state and signing the death warrant of its pro-western premier.” The “may have” is important, because — after all — he wants to convict Wikileaks of murdering a thing which only hypothetically might have maybe existed in some implausible future. This is not a small point; it is hard to kill a thing which has not been born yet. Albon does something similar by talking about how Wikileaks has given Mugabe “the ammunition to wound, and perhaps kill, any chance for multiparty democracy,” and I would say the same thing in response: whenever you overhear people doing a post-mortem on a hypothetical that is now less likely to materialize, you’d best keep walking, since nonsense is afoot. This is worse than counting chickens before they hatch: this is accusing someone of having frightened your chickens so they couldn’t conceive, and then trying to throw that person in jail for having broken your eggs. Or something.

But let’s overlook even that. Let’s focus in on the words that precede Richardson’s “may have,” the words “with the recent release of sensitive diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks…” After all, as WL Central pointed out, it is profoundly weird to hear a Guardian reporter lambasting Wikileaks for releasing a cable that The Guardian itself was the first to release. WL Central:

Wikileaks has been releasing its cables only in collaboration with its media partners, using its media partnerships to outsource its harm minimization procedures. This ensures that cables are only released after they have been greenlighted and redacted by professional and accredited journalists working for one of the media partners…A glance at the datestamp for 09HARARE1004 reveals it was published on the 8th of December, 2010. The only publication making reference to 09HARARE1004 as early as this, is a publication of the full cable in The Guardian. The Guardian’s title for the cable is “US embassy cables: Tsvangirai tells US Mugabe is increasingly ‘old, tired and poorly briefed’”. It identifies gossip about Mugabe at the salient content of the cable, and entirely fails to identify the importance of the material on international sanctions against Zimbabwe, which is the material which allegedly incriminates Tsvangirai.

In other words, the thing which the Guardian is accusing Wikileaks of doing, it turns out, is actually a thing which the Guardian, itself, actually did first. On December 8th, Xan Rice wrote an article entitled “WikiLeaks cables reveal differing views of ‘crazy’, ‘charming’ Robert Mugabe, and published the cable in support of this narrative, totally overlooking in the process the much more important detail about the sanctions. I can only presume that’s because the Guardian and Xan Rice are much more interested in Wikileaks than in the content of the cables, and much more informed about what it is that they’re supposed to write (the cables are just gossip, and also they‘re totally harmful to democracy and the sum total of human happiness in the world) than what the cables actually mean in Zimbabwe. This, apparently, is what Guardian reporter Richardson means when he suggests that “WikiLeaks ought to leave international relations to those who understand it.”

This post has dragged on, and if you’ve gotten this far, I think you get my drift. So let me hand you over, finally, to Petina Gappah at African Legal Brief, whose opinion I completely endorse:

Tsvangirai encapsulates the dilemma of the revolution donated from abroad: for the west, he raises the question of what to do about a pro-democracy leader who is not all that he should be, but represents the best alternative to the regime it is fighting. Dell compared him to Lech Walesa, but he is more like Hamid Karzai. Like the Afghan leader, he is a deeply flawed man whose success is nonetheless essential to the interests of the US and its allies, and who, flawed as he is, still offers a better alternative to the regime he is fighting.

But the strategy of uncritically supporting the lesser of two evils has been to the detriment of politics in Zimbabwe, and indeed, to its democratic development. Tsvangirai may be a lesser evil, but there is still much about him that causes discomfort. Supporting him has led to multiple contradictions and hypocrisies, both for the people of Zimbabwe and the MDC’s western allies. So while Mugabe is castigated for hanging on to power, and refusing to let democratic processes take place both within his party and the country, Tsvangirai, who intends to stay on as MDC president beyond the constitutional limits imposed by his party’s constitution, is considered essential to democracy. In effect, undemocratic means are used to advance supposedly democratic outcomes. And in pushing and supporting a man who as patently flawed as Tsvangirai, they may effectively be creating a monster.

And to G. Pascal Zachary, who points out that Mugabe is not, himself, really the problem anymore; at this point he’s just an 86 year old figurehead for a cabal of Zanu-PF powerbrokers who will certainly outlive him. So Pascal suggests that Mugabe “will be replaced by a leader of the military junta that actually runs Zimbabwe,” and anticipates this sort of outcome, either before or after Mugabe‘s death:

…The Zimbabwean regime depends on a cabal of Mugabe loyalists operating in the shadows. One of them is likely, before long, to seize power, declare Mugabe history — and appeal for recognition and assistance from the international community. Zimbabwe’s next strong man will do what others in African have long done: say they need time to stage legitimate elections….The aid money will pour into Harare, so will the technical experts. Improvements in the material life of the people will come quickly, though more educated Zimbabweans — those few who remain — will leave the country. Then about a year from now, the regime’s leader will declare that he is decided, after much anguished reflection, that he will stand as a candidate for president in the “free and fair” elections to come. The international community will moan and groan, diplomats will say they’ve been cheated, the opposition will cry foul. But after a week or two, the decision will come to be accepted.

[1] Let us not overlook that Mugabe’s response to Wikileaks bears a certain resemblance to the US government’s towards Wikileaks. After all, when the attorney general issues cryptic statements about starting an “investigation” to see if treason is appropriate, which government am I talking about?

[2] And as Mahmood Mamdani pointed out in a controversial LRB article, what makes the problem particularly complicated is that Mugabe:

has ruled not only by coercion but by consent, and his land reform measures, however harsh, have won him considerable popularity, not just in Zimbabwe but throughout southern Africa…Many have compared Mugabe to Idi Amin and the land expropriation in Zimbabwe to the Asian expulsion in Uganda. The comparison isn’t entirely off the mark. I was one of the 70,000 people of South Asian descent booted out by Idi Amin in 1972; I returned to Uganda in 1979. My abiding recollection of my first few months back is that no one I met opposed Amin’s expulsion of ‘Asians’. Most merely said: ‘It was bad the way he did it.’ The same is likely to be said of the land transfers in Zimbabwe…What distinguishes Mugabe and Amin from other authoritarian rulers is not their demagoguery but the fact that they projected themselves as champions of mass justice and successfully rallied those to whom justice had been denied by the colonial system.”

That article provoked a really interesting exchange at the LRB, and elsewhere, which you’d benefit from reading. But at least some version of the underlying point is sound: Mugabe uses violence ruthlessly when he has to, but the really thorny problem is that, quite often, he doesn’t even need to.