The Ministers for Omnipotent Ruritania Offer You a Deal

I had two separate reactions to Heidi Holland’s op-ed about Robert Mugabe, so I’ll blog about it twice.

Holland argues that Western nations should make peace with Robert Mugabe, partly on the grounds that a punitive approach has accomplished nothing and left no avenues for wheedling or persuading Mugabe to act differently than he does. On one level, this is just the old merry-go-round of sanctions or shunning versus “constructive engagement” taking another spin. That’s an argument that I find bitterly futile when it’s voiced in terms of absolutes: it is always a situational question. I find Holland’s take on Mugabe accurate enough (that’s my other reaction, see the next essay), but I don’t think that a sympathetic or constructive approach to Mugabe is any more likely to persuade him to do the right thing.

On a deeper level, though, Holland’s argument makes me think about another class of interminable debates about how outside powers should construct incentives that encourage authoritarians to give up power and discourage kleptocrats from robbing their own countries blind. In Zimbabwe, the MDC has started offering assurances to military leaders that they will not be prosecuted for their actions under the Mugabe regime, and that the MDC will not confiscate property they may have acquired in the last decade except under pre-1997 rules of land reform. Before the general seizure of commercial farms, the Zimbabwean government reserved the right to redistribute farms that were run by absentee owners, or that were left fallow for lengthy periods of time, or in cases where a single owner controlled multiple commercial farms. I don’t think that will necessarily reassure generals or party bigwigs, since many of them now own multiple former commercial farms that they leave largely fallow and on which they are absentee owners.

In any event, I don’t think it will be long before political scientists, economists and policy wonks outside of Zimbabwe start debating whether or not a public assurance to kleptocratic elites that they will be allowed to keep their ill-gotten gains sends the wrong incentive signals or creates a moral hazard or conversely, uses incentives properly to resolve an otherwise intractable situation. This is the same discussion that has been running for a while about whether genocide tribunals or other attempts to prosecute deposed dictators and military leaders for crimes against humanity help to discourage future incidents by promising that there will be consequences, or make authoritarians even more doggedly determined to hold onto power and more inclined to view all outside mediation as hostile or dangerous.

In the comments on a previous entry, Peter55 quite rightly wonders whether I really mean to be talking in this way about decision-making processes within Mugabe’s inner circle. I don’t mean to, because I largely dislike this entire conceptual framework. As Peter observes, it is frequently involves a misapplication of abstract models of human action and motivation to the real world. I find Freakonomics an interesting set of thought-experiments, but when we have to roll up our sleeves and deal with the fullness of human life as it is lived in any given time and place, we find that real people aren’t perfectly playing Prisoner’s Dilemma, aren’t weighing incentive structures, aren’t universal machines for maximizing utility, aren’t clearly running through the information available to them. They’re bound by the specificities of culture, by the inheritances of time, by limits of space, but also individuals can act in idiosyncratic, whimsical, creative or indeterminate ways. Models are an attempt to preemptively discount human unpredictability and invention and then to post-facto explain it as something which we always knew would happen anyway.

Perhaps even more importantly, however, I find the hubris of debates about whether or not this or that set of signals about incentives should be sent, or whether this or that action will have predictable futureward effects a kind of distasteful self-crowning by a transnational class of policy-makers and academic experts. When such a group sits down and asks, “Should we prosecute deposed dictators for their crimes against humanity in order to discourage future dictators, or should we avoid prosecuting them so as to give dictators incentives to leave office peacefully”, they’re imagining themselves as the philosopher-kings of a shadow state that is actually able to make those kinds of dispensations, actually able to calibrate incentives reliably. Sure, most of these kinds of experts will agree that we’re not there yet, but many see these kinds of conversations as the building blocks of that future global order.

So even if we understand people like Mugabe and his inner circle as calculating, incentive-evaluating, rational deciders, I think there is every reason for them to laugh behind closed doors at the hubris of the experts and activists, whatever the latest policy nostrum on tribunals, interventions, sanctions, golden parachutes or so on might be. Because what anyone outside of the rarified settings where generic 12-point plans for peacemaking and incentivizing prosecutions for genocide are composed knows is that every such action is and will be sui generis. The sand castles that the experts build today around one case will be washed away by the tides of history in short order. What happened in the end to Charles Taylor or Auguste Pinochet or Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic has little implication for tomorrow’s dictator and mass murderer. Because the people who play with constructing the machinery of incentive aspire to a kind of reliable managerial authority that they will never have, they are writing blank checks that no one will ever cash. Whether or not someone like Robert Mugabe dies peacefully in his bed, lives out his last years far from his home country, ends up in a pleasant prison while the United Nations dithers for a decade over his fate, is shot by an up-and-coming rival, or ends up torn to shreds by a mob is a matter of particular circumstance. That’s probably something most authoritarians know already, having ridden the vissitudes of history as far as they have.

This entry was posted in Africa, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Ministers for Omnipotent Ruritania Offer You a Deal

  1. Fats Durston says:

    While I agree with you entirely about the hubris of the philosopher-kings, I don’t think

    anyone outside of the rarified settings where generic 12-point plans for peacemaking and incentivizing prosecutions for genocide are composed knows is that every such action is and will be sui generis.

    It seems to me that nearly everyone entering my classes (granted, they are ~20) thinks that learning how to construct peace plans (or effective empires, depending on political stance) is the only reason for studying history, even if they wouldn’t articulate it that way.

  2. peter55 says:

    Superb post, Timothy.

    Although I’ve not known any dictators (apart from once shaking the hand of Joseph Mobutu), I suspect they share a smug self-belief which may preclude fully dispassionate decision-making. That Robert Mugabe survived harrassment, arrest and 10 years in prison under Ian Smith (some of which he spent in forlorn scrubland), in-fighting within and between the various liberation parties before Independence, terrorist bombings from disgruntled white settlers and/or white South African agents following Independence, and successive election victories (however muddied these victories have become), probably makes him believe he has a certain good fortune on his side. If you think the force is with you, you’ll be making decisions very differently than otherwise.

  3. Yet, the likes of Mathieu Kerekou, Denis Sassou-Nguesso and Didier Ratsiraka left power in rather peacefully. I would assume that in their cases there were pressure from within their regimes and political calculations (successful too since the 3 of them came back to power eventually).

    May be the open western hostility is really counter-productive. After all, hardly anybody ever cared Congo-Brazzaville, Benin or Madagascar.

  4. peter55 says:

    The south african journalist R. W. Johnson has an interesting account (who knows if it is true) of the machinations within ZANU-PF following the elections in today’s Sunday Times, here:

  5. nord says:

    I guess I’m more surprised/disappointed by Mbeki & the ANC. Could fear of losing power really be that big a threat to them? Now? How long will they wait until the vote is counted? Even ignoring the damage that ZANU-PF has done within Zimbabwe, I would have thought the costs that are being imposed on SA would have biased them towards accepting or even supporting change.

  6. peter55 says:

    Nord — well, costs can also provide leverage. In the traditions of most maBantu peoples in Southern Africa, the family of an intending groom must make a payment to the family of the intending bride, a so-called lobola or bride-price, which is usually paid in instalments. In most marriages, the bride’s family resists ever receiving the final instalment due, since whilesoever some amount is owed, the bride’s family has some leverage over the groom. I am sure that the unpaid debts of (eg) the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority to South Africa provide the South African Government with power over events in Zimbabwe they would not otherwise have.

Comments are closed.