I don’t know how it happened, but an article that is reasonably straight on the factual details somehow slipped past the vigilant demand for error at the Weekly Standard.
It’s an article by James Kirchick about the transition between Rhodesia and Zimbabwe and the role of the Carter Administration.
Kirchick focuses on the 1979 creation of “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia”, an attempted compromise by Ian Smith’s government designed to head off unrestrained majority rule. Kirchick’s argument is that the Carter Administration bears the lion’s share of the responsibility for ignoring the potential of this settlement and forcing a hasty, careless transition to the elections that put Robert Mugabe in power.
There is certainly a lot of shading of the facts and some hammering of square pegs into round holes going on in the article, but I think the main body of his argument has some validity to it.
Mostly, I’d just ask that people who ask for hardnosed assessments of one situation don’t turn around and demonstrate blinkered innocence about another comparable circumstance. This is what I think Kirchick does in evaluating the two versions of “majority rule” in the transition to Zimbabwe.
I think he’s right that the Carter Administration just wanted to get the Rhodesian situation resolved in the most expedient way possible, and that for them, resolution meant Smith’s capitulation and a basic majority-rule election. Kirchick finds some choicely naive quotes from Andrew Young about Mugabe, though to be fair, most observers were naive about Mugabe at the time. (Even Smith and his allies briefly praised Mugabe in the first two or three years after Mugabe was elected.) I don’t think that a secure or constructive transition in Rhodesia was very high on the Carter agenda: the only goal was to make the Rhodesians disappear. Kirchick also overstates to some extent the Carter Administration’s leadership role in that transition: the Callaghan government in the UK was equally important in pushing for it before Margaret Thatcher came into power.
So Kirchick faults people at the time for not taking a harder look at Mugabe, not questioning the way that the elections were handled, not pushing for a more extensive set of constitutional guarantees, and so on. Fair enough. The problem is that Kirchick holds up the 1979 elections that created “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia” as a perfectly adequate alternative without cluing his readers in on some of the problems with them.
Kirchick does summarize some of the ways that “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia” was something less than a model majoritarian democracy. Whites were to retain effectively permanent control over most of the key capacities of the government, and have a large enough permanent plurality in the legislature to block most initiatives undertaken by African lawmakers. The new arrangement specified that the government was not permitted to address land reform or economic redistribution in any respect. To a very significant extent, the capacity to govern was kept a white privilege, while Africans were allowed to be titular and symbolic representatives of the state.
Let’s get real here: that’s not majority rule or democracy. It wasn’t a lasting formula for resolving the legitimate aspirations of Africans for self-determination. I don’t even think it was a particularly promising formula for negotiating the way to some more satisfying transition: it looked cynical and half-hearted, and it was cynical and half-hearted. I can’t really blame Andrew Young, Cyrus Vance or any other involved party for viewing “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia” as a stillborn chimera. Kirchick seems to think that there could have been a Muzorewa government with these kinds of restrictions that survived with the backing of the United States and that indefinitely kept Mugabe and Nkomo out of the picture. I can’t see it no matter how I twist the counterfactual. In purely realist terms, Muzorewa’s government had little more military or economic capacity than the Smith government that preceded it, and therefore no greater ability to defeat entrenched insurgents. Mozambique and Tanzania weren’t going to give up support for Mugabe and Zambia for Nkomo, regardless of what the Carter Administration did. Even the South Africans were ready to cut Rhodesia loose, seeing it as an indefensible liability. Mugabe and Nkomo had genuine support from many Africans in the country: you couldn’t have a final settlement that didn’t include them, any more than the apartheid regime in South Africa could have had a transition that excluded Mandela and the ANC. Western support couldn’t have kept Zimbabwe-Rhodesia alive any more than the nearly blank-check endorsement of the South African government by the Reagan Administration could keep back the political and economic rot that was forming underneath apartheid during the 1980s.
Kirchick doesn’t even go into some of the other depressing details. Yes, many Africans voted in the 1979 election, but virtually as many did not. Kirchick claims that’s entirely due to violent suppression of the vote by guerillas in 1979, but let’s be fair here. A great many Africans chose not to vote because they saw “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia” as a phony settlement, with good reason. In 1979, African voters weren’t given a full choice of possible candidates, given that the two major nationalist parties (and some minor ones) were not on the ballot. You can’t praise some version of a plebiscite when it produces Muzorewa and then ignore or dismiss the fact that a majority of African voters did choose Mugabe in the 1980 election.
In 1979, many of the voters in more secure rural areas were more or less commanded to vote in particular ways by chiefs who were controlled to a significant extent by the Smith government and backed by the Rhodesian military. (Yes, in 1980, a similar situation pertained in the opposite direction in that the guerillas were allowed to intimidate rural voters near their assembly areas. But that’s the point: Kirchick can’t use one fact to ignore the 1980 result and then overlook a very similar issue only a year earlier.)
I agree with Kirchick that Sithole and Muzorewa were not simply “stooges”. In what I’m writing now, I’m arguing that even Chief Chirau, another ally of the Smith government, was more complex in his views and loyalties than was commonly thought at the time. But if Kirchick wants us to be hard-nosed retrospectively about Mugabe, there’s no reason to regard either Sithole or Muzorewa as saintly liberal democrats, either. Muzorewa was driven by untrammeled personal ambition for power, and Sithole certainly made some deals with various devils both before and after 1979.
Neither transitional moment had much promise for making a better postcolonial future. No one involved in either government really seemed to have a clue about how to restructure the state, which is fundamentally what was needed. Smith was an autocrat, too, and in “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia” he sought to retain most of his autocratic prerogatives. Perhaps he might have allowed Abel Muzorewa some share of those capacities over time, but that’s hardly a liberal democracy in the making. The transition that didn’t happen, the one that might have made a difference, wouldn’t have been a question of who got to retain control over the military, or who was in charge of repressing civil liberties, which is really all that the difference between 1979 and 1980 amounts to. The transition that might have mattered would have been the one that abolished the Central Intelligence Office, that guaranteed personal and political rights, that strengthened an independent judiciary that both Smith and Mugabe governments treated with disdain, that vastly shrank and restrained the ranks of the military and police forces, and so on.
However, while I’d like Kirchick to apply his hardnosed assessment more evenly, I don’t disagree with him that enormous mistakes were made in both 1979 and 1980, and that the Carter Administration made a goodly share of those mistakes. History is the art of hindsight, and when you practice its art, you’ve got to be honest with yourself. Anyone who knows the full political history of Robert Mugabe knows that there was plenty of reason to regard him as a destructive autocrat before 1980. If you gave him a pass then for political reasons, you ought to own up now. (I know I was certainly very credulous about Zimbabwe and Mugabe when I began my own involvement with southern Africa as an undergraduate involved in the anti-apartheid movement in the early 1980s.) Certainly there isn’t much reason to think of him as a “good leader gone bad” when you look at the early 1980s, considering that he wasted almost no time sending troops into southern Zimbabwe to murder civilians.