In Time of Famine
R.W. Johnson reports from Zimbabwe
When I was in Harare recently I inquired about an old naturalist I’d known there. He knew he had cancer, had told his friends he’d finished his book, was all through and would like to be cremated. Since nothing works in Zimbabwe any more he’d got in a nice store of mopani logs and was sure his friends would know what to do. They did. When he died they came round, wrapped his body in a blanket, made a funeral pyre and stood around it, glass in hand, till it burned low. The few doctors left in the country are so badly paid that it wasn’t hard to get the various necessary certificates made out. Anywhere else DIY cremation might raise eyebrows, but not here.
Travelling across Zimbabwe these days brings to mind one of those films like The Day of the Triffids, where a familiar reality has been transformed into nightmare by some sudden calamity. Things are eerily quiet even in town. The street vendors flogging everything from fruit to wooden carvings have long since been chased away, the state having realised that a prospering black market means little VAT is collected; all law and order has gone; the shopfronts are the same, but now there is just emptiness where people used to be; and the people you do see don’t just look ill, they look as though they are dying. In some ways conditions are back to the desperate days of the early colonists, and there are still a few whites – game-rangers and the like – able to live with that.
The Chinese are here in force, their mineral prospectors stalking through the game reserves. Mugabe has high hopes of Beijing and even offered to hand over major mining concessions. The Chinese were greatly interested until they realised that the concessions on offer were already being run by large Western mining companies; it would be politically dangerous to cross them.
A newspaper headline tells you that the former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile-Mariam, who long ago was given refuge in Harare, has now been found guilty of genocide by a court in Addis Ababa. It seems so natural that Mengistu should be here – for years now, I have been running into members of his entourage shopping in the suburbs – that it doesn’t seem at all surprising that Mugabe has refused to give him up to the Ethiopians. By all accounts it was Mengistu who in 2005 advised Mugabe to nip opposition among shanty dwellers in the bud by launching Operation Murambatsvina, in which 700,000 homes were knocked down and the people who lived in them forcibly removed to the countryside. All told, the Murambatsvina affected two million people and already it seems to have killed between a quarter and a half of them, mainly as a result of exposure, illness and starvation. What is spooky is to read in the chargesheet against Mengistu that during the Red Terror of 1977-78 he was responsible for the deaths of 1.5 million people as a result of forced removals and that he deliberately hid the fact that there was a famine in Ethiopia. For here we are again with forced removals and the pretence that there is enough to eat. Ever since he destroyed commercial agriculture with the farm invasions of 2000 and 2001, Mugabe has routinely denied the existence of a famine: Zimbabweans, he insists, don’t need food aid. Had donors not ignored this nonsense, and made at least some food aid available, the death toll would have been even higher.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 29 No. 5 · 8 March 2007
Towards the end of his dismal account of what it’s currently like to travel through its famished landscape, R.W. Johnson writes: ‘A great deal depends on whether what is happening in Zimbabwe can be termed “genocide”, as many people believe it can, for in that case the UN is obliged to act’ (LRB, 22 February). Then, having deemed intervention of some kind to be ‘necessary’, in view of the widespread homelessness and starvation in the country that Mugabe’s bizarre and vicious policies have brought about, he asks which member state might actually raise the Zimbabwean issue at the UN. By the end of the article, we’re left with little or no expectation that any member state at all is going to show willing – and Johnson might have pointed out that, even if Zimbabwe did get onto the agenda in New York and the issue of intervention went as far as the Security Council, the Chinese, busy now, as he reports them to be, signing up the Mugabe regime in their own global economic interest, would use their veto to prevent any action being taken.
There’s a parallel to be drawn between the Zimbabwe case and that of Iraq. During the many years that Sadam Hussein remained all too successfully in power, he was open to the charge of acting genocidally, given that the victims of his violence were so predominantly members of a religious group opposed to the religious group he himself represented. I don’t recall that at any time during his foul dictatorship there was international agitation for his removal on those grounds by means of an armed UN intervention. By the time there was an armed intervention in Iraq, the worst of the genocide was long past, which makes the attempt to dress up the US invasion post hoc as a humanitarian act look pretty sick.
In the same way, given that genocide must be seen to be genocide right from the start, and not a label conveniently stuck on a regime later, once patience with it has become exhausted, it would be no good claiming that Mugabe’s behaviour has only gradually become genocidal and that it’s taken time to be recognised as such. His behaviour has surely got worse, but it hasn’t got different. The fact is that arguments over whether what is going on in Zimbabwe counts as a ‘genocide’ or not are just one more red herring, well fitted to swim with the populous shoal of those slithery creatures we’ve become so used to in the last years. It turns out to be a great pity that there is anything called a Convention on Genocide at all, given the endless possibilities for inaction, expediency and downright mendacity certain to attend on any debate on whether this case or that counts as an example of it. It’s not clear to most of us that those whom Mugabe wants to eliminate, if not physically then economically, are other than his political opponents – that’s to say, those who either already have voted against him or might do so in future. By no stretch of my imagination can I see that as constituting genocide, since the unfortunates in question aren’t a ‘national, ethnic, racial or religious group’, as per the Convention’s stipulation. Speculation as to whether or not the UN might be able legally to intervene in Zimbabwe is a blind, ensuring that nothing very much is being done from outside that country to bring a degree of political pressure on Mugabe which even someone as far gone in senile megalomania as he appears to be can’t stand up to. Johnson is right, alas, to suggest that our prime minister, who has done nothing useful at all in respect of sorting out Mugabe, will ‘end his term with a … self-serving expression of regret’; but then perhaps Blair can but feel admiration for a political leader who contrives to hold onto office way beyond the moment when he becomes patently unfit to exercise it.