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Sub-Saharan Africa is not Egypt, William Hague
Blessing-Miles Tendi, Guardian (UK)
March 24, 2011

View this article on The Guardian website

William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, declared this week that "we are only in the early stages of what is happening in north Africa and the Middle East". Addressing a London conference of African politicians and businessmen, Hague said that the political tumult "will not stop at the borders of the Arab world", suggesting that sub-Saharan countries ruled by undemocratic leaders are also ripe for popular uprisings. Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe and Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo, currently in a stalemate with Alassane Ouattara over who is the country's rightful president, were singled out as at risk of being consumed by popular uprisings if they do not "heed" the democratic will. The west's response must be "generous, bold and ambitious", Hague concluded.

But western boldness and ambition has already resulted in a number of African countries condemning air strikes on Libya, arguing that America, the UK and France are using UN resolution 1973, which authorised the enforcement of a no-fly zone, to effect regime change.

"Muammar Gaddafi, whatever his faults, is a true nationalist. I prefer nationalists to puppets of foreign interests. Therefore, if the Libyan opposition groups are patriots, they should fight their war by themselves and conduct their affairs by themselves. After all, they easily captured so much equipment from the Libyan army, why do they need foreign military support?" Were these the words of Mugabe? No, they came from Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, widely respected as part of a new generation of modernising African leaders, and one of a number who believe the boldness and ambition that Hague extols have undermined the Libyan democratic cause.

Many concerned Zimbabweans, myself included, are of the opinion that Britain cannot play a positive role in our own nation's domestic political affairs because of its colonial record and racially biased application of human rights principles since our independence in 1980. Our message is simple and consistent: lift targeted sanctions on Mugabe and members of his Zanu-PF party because they are undermining our progress to democracy, and stay out of Zimbabwean politics. The message has fallen on deaf ears, as Hague's comments show.

UK immigration minister Damian Green announced this month that Britain will resume deporting failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers because there is significantly less politically motivated violence and conditions have improved in the country. But if Mugabe's security forces are acting "with impunity, ramping up intimidation in order to instil fear in its opponents and to prevent the people of Zimbabwe from expressing their democratic voice", as Hague claimed in his speech, what makes Zimbabwe safe enough to return failed asylum seekers? If, as Green maintains, violence is diminished in Zimbabwe and conditions are much better, why then is Mugabe ripe for toppling? The policy inconsistencies on Zimbabwe cannot be starker.

Mugabe may be unfavourable to Britain but his party retains significant support in Zimbabwe - three years ago his party gained more votes than the opposition MDC in a parliamentary poll widely recognised as the most free and fair since 2000. Similarly Gbagbo has considerable support in Ivory Coast, as seen in the country's north-south split in the ongoing political crisis. These realities may be unpalatable for the UK Foreign Office but they warrant close consideration.

In celebrating the recent popular uprisings, Hague does not stop to ask if the governments that arise are inevitably democratic. Uprisings may scupper democracy by sparking full-scale civil conflict in deeply divided countries. Moreover the instability may give militaries - historically the nemesis of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa - an excuse to resurrect armed rule.

And some undemocratic leaders in sub-Saharan Africa are far too entrenched to be overthrown despite their unpopularity - Angola president José Eduardo dos Santos and Equatorial Guinea leader Teodoro Obiang Mbasogo are only a couple of examples. Hague forgot that the respective contexts of sub-Saharan countries matter. Freedom is universal but Libya, Tunisia and Egypt have more in common with the politics of the Arab League countries than the political dynamics of nations south of the Sahara.

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