Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Britain's immigration hypocrisy

I was not too surprised to learn that the UK government has won its latest legal battle against failed asylum seekers from Zimbabwe. After a similar judgement by the House of Lords with respect to failed asylum seekers from Darfur, it was a foregone conclusion that the Home Office would retain the right to deport those asylum seekers whose claims it would have denied. After all, we have witnessed victories for the asylum-seeking appellants only at the preliminary stages of appeal but never at the decisive ones.

The striking aspect for me in all this, though, is the hypocrisy of the UK government. It continues to exploit crises in such countries as Zimbabwe and Sudan to burnish its credentials as a geopolitical champion of democracy and human rights whilst denying sanctuary to victims of those very same governments’ brutality.

As we speak, Gordon Brown has kicked up international controversy over the EU-Africa summit in Lisbon next month by declaring that he will not attend if Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, shows up. Now, Brown has established himself in UK politics as one seized with an almost missionary zeal for Africa’s development and economic progress.

A Brown premiership is, therefore, to be seen by all Africanists as the best opportunity in a long time to advance the African agenda. Ranging from trade to aid, climate change, immigration and global security, there are no illusions on both sides as to how profoundly pertinent this intercontinental meeting is. And yet it seems Brown is the only European leader so disgusted with the human rights abuses and political repression in Zimbabwe that he is willing to forego his first opportunity as prime minister of Britain to define Europe’ relations with Africa in the 21st century.

For Brown to forego his own proclaimed commitment to Africa over Zimbabwe’s democratic deficit, therefore, one would have to conclude that Mugabe’s atrocities are so grave as to warrant such a high profile boycott. Victims of Mugabe’s repression will no doubt affirm that that is the case. What they do not understand, however, is why the British government then chooses not to believe their accounts of abuse and repression at the hands of Mugabe’s regime.

There are many Zimbabweans roaming Britain’s streets, without a roof to call home or any guaranteed source of food, having been rejected by the British asylum system. I used to be incredulous about such cases until I met a young Zimbabwean man at the Refugee Council in Leeds. He reeked of the street and had all his worldly possessions on his person. His jaded eyes told the long story of a struggle that had mutated to nonchalant resignation.

The British media is complicit in its government’s double standards, for it fails to interrogate this apparent hypocrisy. The perception propagated by the media is that only “failed asylum seekers” are removed from Britain by the authorities, who always make a point of stating in their press statements that they are “committed to protecting genuine cases”. What the media do not mention is that the majority of claimants are summarily dismissed as bogus.

An entirely domestic political dynamic comes into play in deciding asylum claims and it has nothing, in the main, to do with the veracity of the cases. A new fad – that immigration is putting pressure on public services - is driving the anti-immigration cause and putting liberals off course. Mugabe, ever the wily political operator, has tapped into Britain’s domestic quagmire and decided to twist the situation to his advantage.

Returnees, unless they are of high political significance or become active again, seem to be generally spared the wrath of the state. The dire economic conditions in the country are enough to disorientate them and force them to put political activism on the back burner as they struggle for breath. Meanwhile, those already active inside the country are bludgeoned senseless, as the MDC has in the last few days reported to the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, who is mediating in talks between the opposition and the ruling Zanu PF.

The activists inside the country are reminded by the fate of those just returned from Britain that there is nowhere to run. South Africa continues to refuse to recognize refugees from Zimbabwe, preferring that they roam the streets of Johannesburg as illegal immigrants, who are legally more amenable to deportation. And Mbeki knows this is one aspect of his ‘quiet diplomacy’ that Britain is unlikely to argue against, for Brown is also quietly doing the same.


Thursday, 22 November 2007

Ian Smith denied our African humanity

BORN at the height of the national liberation struggle in the late 1970s, I grew up in post-independence Zimbabwe. Save for hazy memories, I cannot claim to possess a concrete self-consciousness of life under Ian Douglas Smith’s white supremacist Rhodesian Front government. However, having been born to young and unemployed school-leavers of peasant background, my life as a toddler was to be circumscribed in a brutally physical way by the paranoid security policies of Smith’s government.

I spent my early childhood in one of Smith’s concentration camps in a small village called Chibuwe in Chipinge district, on the country’s eastern border with Mozambique. This was a major operational zone for the nationalist guerillas fighting for black self-determination. In order to cut off the guerillas from accessing logistical and political support from the masses, Smith’s government herded African villagers living within such areas into concentration camps, which they euphemistically called ‘protected villages’ or “keeps”.

The rigmarole of concentration camp life revolved around the curfew siren and humiliating security checks. Its barbed wire fence epitomized the erosion of basic rights and freedoms for Africans and stood as an apt symbol of the limits placed in the way of African aspiration under white minority rule. On a broader national level, the fence, represented in the form of the police and the various prohibitions on African movement and domicile, cordoned off African want from white plenty and ensured the uninterrupted flow of white settler culture in Europeans-only enclaves, “far from the madding natives”.

My entire extended family – my grandfather, his sons and their wives and children – lived under the watchful eye of the concentration camp guard and in mortal fear of the FN rifle that swung from his shoulder. Their fertile lands in the rich farming belt of Middle Sabi along the Save River had since been seized and given over to white commercial agriculture.

It was no surprise that two of my older cousins – high on the idealism and fearlessness of youth - found this negation of their humanity and denial of aspiration unendurable and decided to cross over to Mozambique to join the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), whose commander-in-chief was Robert Mugabe. In the neighbouring district of Chimanimani, and in response to similarly dehumanizing conditions, four of my mother’s brothers also crossed over to Mozambique to join the armed struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence.

Meanwhile my father, Goodson Sithole, struggled to find a decent job in order to provide for his young family despite his brilliant GCSE grades. Reluctantly, he found himself cutting sugarcane on Anglo-American owned plantations in the southern Zimbabwe lowveld, later graduating from field to factory. It must have been with an unfathomable sense of anger and frustration that he endured this crass exploitation, reporting to superiors who owed their positions not necessarily to their superior intellect or education but to the colour of their skin.

The advent of independence and black majority rule in 1980 restored agency to Africans as authors of their own history and definers of their own humanity. It opened a whole new universe of opportunity and brought hitherto unfeasible aspirations into the realm of possibility. My father was one of those that took to the opportunities ushered in by independence with gusto. He enrolled at the University of Zimbabwe, benefiting from generous state funding, as I was also to more than 15 years later.

My father’s post-independence rebirth as a professional – a social worker - had an immensely positive impact on our family’s quality of life and the choices that accrued to us. My own family’s experiences of the transformation from white supremacist rule to national independence resonate, obviously with variations, in the lives of many of my compatriots.

Comparisons between life under white rule and present day Zimbabwe are insultingly simplistic in their reductionism. Comparing the state of supermarket shelves in 1977 to 2007 serves only a limited anecdotal purpose and does not even begin to capture the people’s overall existential narrative then and now.

Some media, reporting on Smith’s death, rhetorically asked whether the current crisis under Robert Mugabe had vindicated Smith’s self-fulfilling prophecy that black rule would ultimately fail. What they failed to give equal emphasis to was the implicit racism in Smith’s diabolic predictions, made on no sound evidence but rather out of his own malicious conviction of the innate incapability of the African to assume self-government. “Not in a thousand years”, is how he infamously put it.

Zimbabwe is where it is today because of Mugabe’s unlimited greed for power and penchant for violence and not, as Smith suggested, because he is black. Beginning with the slaughter of thousands of the Ndebele in the first years of independence, Mugabe has over his very long rule gathered the full range of atrocities imaginable into his quiver.

No one ever suggested that the achievement of black majority rule was itself a sort of “end of history”, a kind of nirvana in which politics would cease and everyone lived happily ever after. Rather, independence marked the beginning of the arduous challenge of nation-building, of constructing the institutions of democracy that colonial administrations either eschewed or, where they existed, applied only to the affairs of the white settler minority.

Ironically, the greatest challenge pro-democracy activists have faced in Zimbabwe has been in the form of the leviathan that Smith’s Rhodesian Front government built – the security state. Its raison d’etre continues predominantly to be the partial exercise of law and order clearly for the maintenance and reproduction of sectional interests.

From the murderous Central Intelligence Organisation to nefarious legislation such as the Law and Order Maintenance Act, now rechristened POSA, Smith bequeathed Mugabe an extremely handy toolkit guaranteed to frustrate popular attempts at building a genuinely democratic society. But more fundamentally, Smith denied our African humanity.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Listen to my VOA comments on Yar Adua's statement

I gave an interview to the Voice of America's Ndimyake Mwakalyelye on the Nigerian president's statement on the breakdown of the rule of law. Follow this link to listen to the interview:

Monday, 5 November 2007

Yar Adua breaks ranks with African leaders on Zimbabwe

Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua has broken with Africa's time-honoured convention of blind solidarity by slamming violations of the rule of law by President Robert Mugabe's government in Zimbabwe. Speaking at a press conference in Germany to mark the end of the third Germany/European Partnership with Africa, he said, “I want to emphasise that what is happening in Zimbabwe is not in conformity with the rule of law. I do not subscribe to this."
Such forthright criticism of the Zimbabwean regime has not been heard in abundance from the African elite. The conventions of African politics appear to place a higher premium on elite solidarity above principled leadership. As such, leaders have unashamedly chosen to ignore the suffering of African people under the brutal leadership of some of the world's most heinous dictatorships in the name of Pan-African solidarity. Thus stripped of its noble objectives, Pan-African solidarity has come to mean the adoption by African elites of a laager mentality vis a vis the very people they lead as well as external critics. It is no surprise, therefore, that the prevailing consensus among African pro-democracy activists is that the continent's international organisations and regional blocs tend to behave as trade unions for political leaders.
It is also quite telling that the most rabid proponents of Pan-African solidarity are usually those leaders with disgraceful human rights records in their own backyards such as Mugabe. The argument that solidarity is the necessary counterweight to prevailing threats from an unrelenting imperialism are routinely used as justification for stalling Africa's democratic consolidation and advancement.
It is refreshing, in this regard, that a leader of one of Africa's powerhouses should come out in such a public manner against the violation of democracy in Zimbabwe. Indeed, it gives the long-suffering people of Africa a glimmer of hope as to the direction their continent could take in the future under a principled leadership. The realpolitik of silence as a strategy for resolving problems wrought by dictators, as pursued by South African president Thabo Mbeki, sends out confusing signals about the values to which Africa should aspire.
Ironically, Mbeki himself is the author of the ambitious African Renaissance drive, an intellectual paradigm that has inspired the continent's blue-print for development - the New Partnership for Africa's development (NEPAD). As Mugabe prepares to rig and murder his way to "re-election" in March 2008, Africa's leaders must make it abundantly clear that they will not be roped into defending the indefensible. Yar Adua has shown the way, hats off to him.