• Saturday, June 22, 2024
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BusinessDay

Dear Zimbabwe: We are sorry

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I remember the first time I thought I had the story figured out. It was 2011 and I was a bright-eyed 21 year-old final year university student filled with energy, optimism, love and passion. I was dating a fellow fresh-faced idealist from the town of Kwekwe in Central Zimbabwe. After meeting her and developing a heightened interest in her country and its culture and history, I had arrived at what I thought was the epiphany of a lifetime – Robert Mugabe was actually the good guy fighting against an oppressive global system!

After two decades of subjecting the country to avoidable trauma, losing millions of people to the diaspora and making the Zimbabwean economic refugee a ubiquitous sight around the world because of a single issue, it turns out that this thing was not the hill to die on after all!

Prior to meeting Nicole (name has been changed), all I knew about Zimbabwe was that it was a country that suffered hyperinflation after chasing out its colonial settler population. After developing a close relationship with someone from there however, it became clear that the story had a lot of moving parts. There was the broken Lancaster House Agreement. There was the attitude of the settler population itself – many of whom were open racists who insisted on calling the country “Rhodesia.” There was the intractable problem of the Chimurenga (war of independence) veterans.

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Over the course of several months learning about the brutal history of Zimbabwe and its southern neighbour, I began to understand that the very distant idea of colonialism I was raised with in Nigeria, was a very different thing to what people in other parts of Africa experienced.

Whereas having names like ‘Egerton’ and ‘Bourdillon’ in your address was a status symbol in Lagos, you could write a book about the politics of renaming ‘Rhodesia’ as ‘Zimbabwe’, ‘Salisbury’ as ‘Harare’, ‘Pretoria’ as ‘Tshwane’ or even ‘South Africa’ as ‘Azania.’ Inevitably at the root of it all, there was the basic issue of Cecil Rhodes and colonialism.

Without realising it, I had begun a journey into what I now know as my ‘Pan-Africanist’ phase.

Emotion vs economics: Economics wins again

Nine years after my Mugabe epiphany, things are very different now. Robert Mugabe is no longer alive and his great ally-turned-enemy next door Nelson Mandela is also past tense. Even Nicole is only a memory now. The legacy of both men who made history as the first democratically elected presidents of their respective countries is now bare for all to see.

Mandela left behind a country with severe structural problems and socioeconomic divisions whose fastest-growing political formation is a group of pantomime communists who wear red berets and unironically call each other ‘comrade.’ He did however leave behind an actual functioning country.

That is more than can be said for Mugabe, whose signature government action (or lack thereof) regarding land seizures now ranks at or near the top of the most disastrous economic and geopolitical own goals of the 21st century. Cash shortages, triple digit inflation, a virtually bankrupt government in need of foreign assistance, and a 90+ percent unemployment rate tell the story plainly. And that’s just for starters.

I stumbled across a story this week that made my head spin. Apparently, after meetings with the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), the de-facto representative body for evicted white farmers, Zimbabwe’s government has offered to pay them compensation totaling $3.5bn. Let me rewrite that in plain English: after evicting them without compensation and sparking off a series of crippling sanctions that devastated the economy it exists to protect, the Zimbabwean government has agreed to pay compensation – after wasting everybody’s time for 20 years.

During that period, the bulk of which went by with Mugabe in charge, the Zimbabwean government decided that such an offer could never happen because the Lancaster House Agreement made paying off white farmers the UK’s job. Mugabe flat out refused to entertain the notion that Zimbabwe held any liability, so Zimbabwe found itself locked in a death spiral of trade sanctions, famine and lack of foreign investment. This all served to make last week’s news all the more stunning. This was the most unexpected of Zimbabwean State decisions.

Of course one may point out that President Mnangagwa’s offer specified that this amount was restitution for only assets lost other than land. One may also point out that the idea of Zimbabwe somehow finding $3.5bn from somewhere is fanciful. Both observations however, would be beside the point. The real story is that after 20 years of wasted hopes, dreams and aspirations of an entire generation of Zimbabweans, the policy stance (which many of us ‘Pan-Africanists’ held up as a proxy for our anti-colonialist struggle) turned out to be both unsustainable and reversible.

In other words, after two decades of subjecting the country to avoidable trauma, losing millions of people to the diaspora and making the Zimbabwean economic refugee a ubiquitous sight around the world because of a single issue, it turns out that this thing was not the hill to die on after all! In my case, the hours spent immersing 21 year-old me in southern Africa’s unique colonial experience while playing Asimbonanga by Johnny Clegg and Savuka on repeat, were not a suitable way to engage with a complex real-life political and economic problem.

If this offer could be made in 2020, it could also have been made in 2003 or 2005, potentially sparing 16 million Zimbabweans 20 years of unnecessary suffering. We basically wasted two decades of Zimbabwean lives because of a naive sense of ‘justice’ that turned out to be as solid and beneficial as my short-lived relationship with Nicole.

An apology to Zimbabweans

Speaking for myself and on behalf of thousands of “educated” Africans who once held our noses and drank the Robert Mugabe Kool Aid because it was “for the greater good,” I wish to tender an unreserved apology to the people of Zimbabwe. From our relatively comfortable surroundings in Accra, Lagos, Durban, Nairobi, London, Atlanta, Brussels and Toronto, we helped Mr Mugabe amplify his empty and economically illiterate rhetoric narratives out of a misguided sense of justice and belief in a Pan-Africanist, anti-colonial sentiment. We were not on ground to feel the pain of actual Zimbabweans, but we paternalistically assumed that we knew what was best for them.

The election results even despite the expected rigging, always showed that in Harare, Gweru, Kwekwe and Bulawayo – the country’s largest urban centres with its most educated voting population – Mugabe’s ZANU-PF was consistently annihilated between 2000 and 2012. This should have told us clearly that you were speaking using the only language you were allowed to use, since Zimbabwe did not have a free press – something we were fully aware of but chose to ignore “for the greater good.” We ignored you because we were vicariously experiencing Mugabe’s alleged defensive war against the colonialists. He was our Pan-Africanist champion and nothing else mattered.

When Mugabe faced criticism in the international media space, we were his most ardent and effective defenders, swarming through comment sections and other public spaces to defend the honour of our African Hero. When even Zimbabweans who had fled the country would try to explain that the Mugabe they knew was no misunderstood hero, but merely a politician willing to sacrifice his people as pawns in his quest to hold on to power indefinitely, we told them to shut up and contemplate their sad existence as traitors and coolies.

While we thought our hearts were in the right place, it is now clear that we were in fact cooperating with yet another African dictator in a war against his own people. African dictators like Mugabe often fear the influence and input of diaspora populations, and what we did was drown out the voices of Zimbabwe’s diaspora who knew him best, so that he could be anointed and canonised as a hero and apostle of anti-colonialism.

We thought we were part of some grand Pan-African struggle, but it turns out that we were in fact just propping up the international image of a despot who had been in power since 1980, and had no intention of peacefully handing over power. Mugabe was not in fact, fighting for Zimbabwe or Africa. He was merely fighting for his own political and economic supremacy – and we were the mugs who enabled him.

Now that the game is over and the scoreboard shows a definite result, it is only fair that we admit that we got this one hopelessly wrong and offer our apologies to the Zimbabweans whom we once shouted down. They are the ones left to deal with the impossible situation of living in a police state with 800 percent inflation while we move on with our comfortable lives in countries where it is possible for articles like this to be published.

If any of them gets to read this, please know that we are sorry. We should have listened to you.

We should have recognised the megalomania and performative xenophobia of Idi Amin, the conspicuous consumption of Jean Bedel Bokassa and the economic and diplomatic vandalism of Sani Abacha all rolled into one. We should have amplified your voices telling him to step down instead of quoting obscure studies purportedly proving that you were better off in 2012 than in 1999.

It is to our everlasting shame that we prioritised fighting a supposed external enemy over looking out for the welfare of fellow Africans who were going through terrible times. In doing this, we betrayed the spirit of what should have driven Pan-Africanism – a desire to enrich and improve African lives, as against simply a need to oppose people with pale skin pigmentation.

I am truly, deeply sorry.