In the comments on my AU post, Bradley Reuhs asks what I think is going on with the AU/South African position on Zimbabwe. My frustration with the AU on this and many other issues is fairly terminal, but obviously there are deeper explanations that go beyond my initial outburst.
I think a lot of things are going on with the AU and Zimbabwe.
1. This is the long arc of African nationalism playing out here: its central ideological touchstone has always been the achievement and expression of sovereignty against the West, especially in symbolic and gestural forms, and entirely in terms of the nation-state as defined by the boundaries established through colonial rule. The consequences of such expressions of sovereignty, whether they’re wasting millions of dollars building gigantic modernist development projects or tacitly approving misrule on the grounds that it’s the sovereign right of a national leader to misrule his own people, have been systematically excluded from nationalist thought. African nationalism has never concerned itself with the nature of the state itself, the delivery of good governance, or the question of what constitutes the achievement of freedom beyond sovereignty: in fact, it defines sovereignty as freedom.
The AU is fine with the idea of intervening in civil conflicts like Sudan, because they see those as a threat to sovereignty. I don’t think they care much about whether those conflicts are a humanitarian problem, or that ordinary citizens suffer and lose their freedoms to violence.
2. It’s interesting to note, as an aside, that the other parallel forms of anti-colonial nationalism that once defined the non-aligned movement have diverged significantly in their later development from African nationalism. Anti-colonial nationalism in southeast Asia and parts of east Asia has been significantly blunted by the relatively favorable incorporation of most national economies within the region into the world economy, and the spread of a kind of managerial authoritarianism. The pan-Arab form has been challenged by the rise of Islamism. In most African states, neither thing applies. There’s nothing indigenous which is also continental that has the rootedness and local relevance to mobilize mass discontent with nationalist ideology, and most African states have become markedly less incorporated into the world economy rather than more so since 1950. So African nationalism, which ought to be utterly discredited, continues to occupy a central political space because there is nothing to push back against it except for a) neo-liberalism, which has also had its innings in many African political economies, and with little to show for it; b) other forms of developmentalism of the Oxfam-Jeffrey Sachs variety, which don’t offer much of a political place to stand (and largely have the same poor record when it comes to transformative results as neoliberalism) and c) arteriosclerotic variations of socialism or Marxism, offered by their proponents with various degrees of dogmatic confidence. So to some extent, this has a lot to do with the fact that no one really has a clue when it comes to responding to the disastrous erosion of African prospects in the last fifty years. If you don’t have a vision of the future, it’s hard to have any kind of systematic response to crises in the present.
3. Some of this current impasse is the African version of the current US leadership’s profound antipathy towards most international institutions. The US doesn’t want to have a binding, reciprocal commitment to obligations that it doesn’t fully control or determine and that might handcuff its own freedom of action. Most of the AU leaders have pursued policies similar to some of Mugabe’s at some time or another, or if they haven’t yet, most of them want to reserve the right to do so in the future. So they don’t want a standard of action or even a paper condemnation that says it’s wrong to destroy shantytowns without making provision for their inhabitants, because most of them have already done that themselves on a lesser scale or know they might want to do it in the future. Most of them don’t want to condemn Mugabe’s use of colonial-era “emergency regulations” to crack down on free expression or to permit indefinite detentions because most of them have done something similar or might want to in the future. Almost no postcolonial African states have committed seriously and irrevocably to a view that the authority of the state should be permanently and constitutionally limited in some domains; until they do, they’re not going to get themselves into a situation where they condemn another African nation for doing something that they themselves have done or might do.
(Incidentally, this is why I think Mbeki has taken the position on AIDS that he has: not because he seriously believes the proposition that HIV is not involved in AIDS, but because he and his ministers decided that they wanted to put their limited resources behind poverty reduction rather than the medical treatment of people already infected with HIV–and so they didn’t want to constrain their freedom of action by accepting the international consensus on AIDS.)
4. Along similar lines, I think Mugabe’s characterization of most urban people as “trash” is one shared by a number of African leaders. At the least, they don’t care much about squatters or the poorer ranks of township inhabitants. Some of this is pure class antagonism; some of it is also the accurate if amoral recognition that the only real popular threat of spontaneous uprising that they face comes from urban populations–rural revolts are a different kind of problem and one that doesn’t usually directly threaten ruling elites until you get to the level of open civil warfare.
5. One of the subsurface issues here is that many AU leaders think the West is obsessed with Zimbabwe because of racial sympathies towards the white farmers (this is also one of the alibi offered by some African-American politicians and intellectuals who have argued in the past that condemnation of Mugabe’s policies should be leavened with sympathy for the burdens of land distribution in Zimbabwe). Since I think the entire white farmers issue is an irrelevant red herring, a deliberate strategy of misdirection on the part of Mugabe, I think the AU leaders are suckers to fall for this. But on the other hand, they’re probably right that the sympathies of the Western leaders (and Euro-American observers in general) have something to do with the racial drama of the land seizures.
6. There’s also just pure, simple obstinancy here, and that’s largely what the earlier post is about. I think the AU is just being contrarian: whatever the West wants, they won’t do, and the more they dig that hole, the more the West can use the issue to bludgeon them, which means they’ll dig the hole even deeper. And so on, a vicious feedback loop.