Surgery Below The Waist

  • PublishedMarch 2, 2009

“A people who cannot read or quantify the hurt of history, the massive injury done them by other nationalities in history, cannot be a people in history” – Nathaniel Manheru, a Zimbabwean columnist.

This column, Baffour’s Beefs, has disappeared for some time now because I have been thinking seriously of retiring it, after 21 years of existence, 21 years of going every which way and ferreting out hidden truths, and putting them at the disposal of our readers. It has been a long journey – but how could I retire the column when I continue to read, hear and see things such as what I have read, heard or seen in recent weeks?

Take this one: Abraham Boden, the first African-American security detail to guard an American president (John F. Kennedy) told the BBC four days before President Obama’s inauguration on 20 January: “I had a supervisor [at the White House] who looked me in the eye and told me point blank – he said: ‘Boden, I want to tell you one thing and don’t ever forget it. [You may be guarding the president, but] you are a nigger. You were born a nigger. You will die a nigger. You will always be nothing but a nigger. So act like one.”

Or this one – narrated by Colin Grant (“the son of Jamaican parents who came to Britain in the late 1950s” – whatever that means) in his new book, Negro with a Hat – The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey: “A daily diet of humiliation and abuse was the lot of Southern African-Americans. Worse still, lynching was common south of the Mason-Dixon line – 37 were recorded in 1917 and their numbers would almost double the following year. Lynching was not just the murder of black men and women by a mob. It was preceded, in the case of black men, by their mutilation (‘surgery below the waist’), after which they were doused with petrol, set on fire and burnt until all of their blood vessels, veins and arteries exploded. Bits of their bodies were routinely chopped off as souvenirs before the mob was sufficiently satiated to leave what was left of them dangling from a tree. As a five-year-old, Charles William Brown remembered the sight of the big cross where ‘they burned a Negro at the stake’ at Jacksonville, Florida. Years later, Brown could still recall the ‘smell’ [of] his burning flesh five miles away … After the flames were over, and he was burnt to a crisp, [they went] around and cut things off of him – off the fingers and toes … and they would take them home, the white women and put them in glass jars and set them on the mantelpiece.”

Well, we have come a long way, haven’t we? To the point where today one of us sits in the Oval Office not as “a nigger [who] must act like one”, but as the president of the country where women, not long ago, would cut things off one of our people lynched and burnt by baying mobs, and put “the things” in glass jars and set them on the mantelpiece as souvenirs. May the Good Lord help us to see beyond our feeding spoons! Another recent thing that has swayed me to continue with this column is the breakthrough in Zimbabwe where, after eight months of wrangling, a power-sharing government has finally been put in place. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his two deputies were sworn in on 11 February. At last, it appears that African wisdom has overcome brazen foreign interference! And what great thanks we have to give to the SADC and its mediation team headed by the former South African president and son of the African soil, Thabo Mbeki. At one point last November, when things weren’t going too well, Mbeki felt obliged to write to Tsvangirai in response to his public comments about the SADC’s mediation efforts. That letter is so seminal that parts of it should be captured here for posterity.

In fact if the new power-sharing government is to succeed, all the parties involved should be constantly reminded of Mbeki’s words. He wrote: “Today [22 November 2008], I received the letter dated 19 November 2008, which was correctly communicated through the South African embassy in Harare, written to me by your secretary general, the Hon Tendai Biti, MP, concerning Constitutional Amendment No.19. [Biti is now the minister for finance in the power-sharing government.] I must confess that the contents of this letter came to me as a complete surprise, causing me grave concern. As you know, Mr Biti’s letter describes the decisions on Zimbabwe taken by the 9 November SADC Extraordinary Summit Meeting held in South Africa, as ‘a nullity’.

The letter goes further to say that ‘it is then difficult for any of the parties to move in any direction for fear of legitimising the SADC Summit ‘ruling’… “We were appointed as facilitator of the Zimbabwe Dialogue by the SADC. This position was later endorsed by both the African Union and the United Nations, both of which expressly rely on the SADC to facilitate the Zimbabwe Dialogue, and thus contribute to the resolution of the Zimbabwe problem. You will therefore understand that it is absolutely impossible for us as the SADC-appointed facilitator to contemptuously dismiss solemn decisions of an SADC Summit Meeting as ‘a nullity’.  Indeed, and necessarily, all such decisions serve as a binding mandate on the facilitator… “You will remember your own insistence [at the meeting of the SADC Troika of the Organ on Politics and SADC chairperson in Harare on 27-28 October] that in the context of the [power-sharing] agreement, that there should be two ministers of home affairs, these should serve in rotation, with the MDC(T) appointee taking the first slot.

You affirmed that if this [and the subsequent legalisation of the agreement through the enactment of Constitutional Amendment No.19] were to be agreed, it would mark the conclusion of the negotiations about the distribution of the ministerial portfolios, and therefore enable the establishment of the Zimbabwe Inclusive Government, with your endorsement and support… “ It is therefore factually incorrect that the SADC has ignored various outstanding matters which you might have raised or which have served and serve on the agreed dialogue agenda… Our region considers this [the formation of the Inclusive Government] to be the most critical and urgent strategic task to implement, to move decisively towards the resolution of the challenges facing Zimbabwe… MDC(T), like the other Zimbabwe parties, must, within the Inclusive Government, take responsibility for the future of Zimbabwe, rather than see its mission as being a militant critic of President Mugabe and Zanu PF.

“The signing of the Global Political Agreement has provided the possibility for the leaders of the people of Zimbabwe to govern Zimbabwe together, and together to solve the national problems… All that is now required is that these leaders must remain true to their word. They must implement the agreement they have signed. In this regard, they have absolutely no need to refer to their external supporters for approval, however powerful they might seem, including any and all South African formations… “The agreement that has been reached and signed provides that Zimbabwe will and must have a ruling coalition of three cooperating parties. Acting together, within the agreed framework, these will and must constitute the new ‘ruling party’ of Zimbabwe, which must govern Zimbabwe as this ‘one’ entity… What the people of Zimbabwe, our region and Africa now need is the sense of patriotism among yourselves as leaders of the people of Zimbabwe as African patriots, which will inspire you, despite and beyond personal and partisan interests, to implement the agreements you have concluded… You know this, too, that the rest of Southern Africa, your neighbouring countries, has also had the unavoidable obligation to carry much of the weight of the burden of the Zimbabwe crisis, in many ways. You know that, among other things, various countries of our region host large numbers of economic migrants from Zimbabwe, who impose particular burdens on our countries.

Loyal to the concept and practice of African solidarity, none of our countries and governments has spoken publicly of this burden, fearful that we might incite the xenophobia to which all of us are opposed. “Nevertheless, the leaders of Zimbabwe, including you, dear brother, need to bear in mind that the pain your country bears is a pain that is transferred to the masses of our people, who face their own challenges of poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment. This particular burden is not carried by the countries of Western Europe and North America, which have benefited especially from the migration of skilled and professional Zimbabweans to the north. “In the end, when all is said and done, Zimbabwe will have to exist in peace and produce collaboration with its neighbours in Southern Africa and the rest of Africa.

Realistically, Zimbabwe will never share the same neighbourhood with the countries of Western Europe and North America, and therefore secure its success on the basis of friendship with these, and contempt for the decisions of its immediate African neighbours. “I say this humbly to advise that it does not help Zimbabwe, nor will it help you as prime minister of Zimbabwe, that the MDC(T) contemptuously repudiates very serious decisions of our region, and therefore our continent, describing them as ‘a nullity’. It may be that, for whatever reason, you consider our region and continent as being of little consequence to the future of Zimbabwe, believing that others further away, in Western Europe and North America, are of greater importance. “In this context, I have been told that because leaders in our region did not agree with you on some matters that served on the agenda of the SADC Extraordinary Summit Meeting, you have denounced them publicly as ‘cowards’. Such manner of proceeding might earn you prominent media headlines. However, I assure you that it will do nothing to solve the problems of Zimbabwe.

“As you secure applause because of the insult against us that we are ‘cowards’, you will have to consider the reality that our peoples have accepted into their countries very large numbers of Zimbabwean brothers and sisters in a spirit of human solidarity… None of our countries displayed characteristics of cowardice when they did this. All of us will find it strange and insulting that because we do not agree with you on a small matter, you choose to describe us in a manner that is most offensive in terms of African culture, and therefore offend our sense of dignity as Africans, across our borders…”

Let me refresh our minds. Last month, Part I of this column stopped at where former President Thabo Mbeki, the SADC facilitator in the Zimbabwe negotiations, was pouring his heart out in a letter to the country’s now prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai. Mbeki, famed for his quiet diplomacy (“there is no diplomacy without quietness”, he keeps reminding his critics), had had enough! “I say this humbly,” Mbeki wrote to Tsvangirai on 22 November 2008, “it may be that, for whatever reason, you consider our region and continent as being of little consequence to the future of Zimbabwe, believing that others further away, in Western Europe and North America, are of greater importance… In the end, when all is said and done, Zimbabwe will have to exist in peace and productive collaboration with its neighbours in Southern Africa and the rest of Africa. Realistically, Zimbabwe will never share the same neighbourhood with countries of Western Europe and North America, and therefore secure its success on the basis of friendship with these, and contempt for the decisions of its immediate African neighbours…”

This is what Christians call “speaking in parables”. Jesus “spoke in parables” all the time, the Bible tells us, and Mbeki was imitating the Son of God. Mind the phrase, “countries of Western Europe and North America”. Mbeki used it three times in a space of five paragraphs, in addition to alluding to it in an earlier paragraph: “In this regard, [the Zimbabwean parties] have absolutely no need to refer to their external supporters for approval, however powerful they might seem…” In all honesty, I shouldn’t be raising these matters now, especially when we have an inclusive government in place in Harare, and which, from what we’ve seen so far, appears to be bedding down nicely. But the decision by the US (now headed by one of our own brothers, strangely) and Britain and its EU allies to continue with the debilitating economic sanctions on Zimbabwe for another year makes Mbeki’s words take on extraordinary resonance, which forces me to look, once again, at the role being played in Zimbabwe by the “countries of Western Europe and North America”. For the past nine years, I have written in this column and elsewhere in this magazine and even beyond about how the “countries of Western Europe and North America” (I call them “the nations of European stock” because they include Australia and New Zealand as well) have been trying to bring Zimbabwe low in order to incite popular revolt against President Mugabe and get him out.

To understand why America and its European allies have not lifted their economic sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe since 2001, you must go back to two basic issues. First, Zimbabwe’s intervention in DRCongo in 1998 at the behest of the SADC, that stopped the American and British project in 1996 to take total control of DRCongo and its strategic resources, after the overthrow of President Mobutu Sese Seko, using Laurent Kabila, Rwanda and Uganda as a front. Interestingly Kabila turned tail when he arrived in Kinshasa as president of Congo and this is where Zimbabwe came in. We should never forget that this “project” was started under President Clinton, the man said to be “Africa’s best ever friend in the White House”.

Second, and the most sore, the land reform programme started in 2000 by Mugabe’s government that took land from mainly white farmers (largely of British origin) and given to black farmers. There is plenty of kith and kin politics involved here, but even more important to the West is the deadly message that the Zimbabwe land reform example carries to other countries in the Southern African region and even beyond. The Zimbabwe example should not be allowed to succeed in their view, or if at all it must look like a Pyrrhic victory to deter others from going the same way. The whole Zimbabwe conundrum is about this, and if you don’t understand it, you will never understand why the West would not lift the economic sanctions even though there is an inclusive government now in place in Harare.

Just consider this: On 4 December 2001, when the US Congress was pushing through, at breakneck speed, the punitive Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, Cynthia McKinney, the then African-American congresswoman, stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and uttered these historic words: “Zimbabwe is not without troubles, but neither is the United States. I have not heard anyone proposing a United States Democracy Act following last year’s [2000] presidential electoral debacle [that brought George W. Bush to power]. And if a foreign country were to pass legislation calling for a United States Democracy Act which provided funding for United States opposition parties under the fig leaf of ‘voter education’, this body and this country would not stand for it. There are many de jure and de facto one-party states in the world which are the recipients of the support of the United States government. They are not the subject of Congressional legislative sanctions. To any honest observer, Zimbabwe’s sin is that it has taken the position to right a wrong, whose resolution has been too long overdue – to return its land to its people… When we get right down to it, this legislation is nothing more than a formal declaration of United States complicity in a programme to maintain white-skin privilege. We can call it an ‘incentive’ bill, but that does not change its essential ‘sanctions’ nature. It is racist and against the interests of the masses of Zimbabweans…”

On 13 March 2009, Dr Mahmood Mamdani, the Herman Lehman professor of government and a member of staff of the School of International Affairs at Columbia University in New York, contributing to a forum at the United Nations organised by the UN Correspondents Association, could not believe why America would not lift the economic sanctions on Zimbabwe: “The margin of [election] rigging, according to the Republican Institute based in Nairobi,” Dr Mamdani said, “was greater in Kenya than in Zimbabwe. The numbers killed in Kenya were greater than in Zimbabwe. It is amazing that in a country [Zimbabwe] with such poverty and cholera spreading, the Obama administration has renewed sanctions against Zimbabwe. It’s a political, ideological and partisan policy.”

But you wouldn’t understand it if you don’t have an eye for history. Back in 2001, the damnable Zimbabwe Democracy Act had been sponsored in Congress by Senator William H. Frist. His co-sponsors were Senators Jesse Helms (a supporter of Ian Smith), Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Russell Feingold. Today Hillary Clinton is Obama’s secretary of state, and Joe Biden his vice president. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to be able to join the dots. Even more so if you read this story published by the British daily, The Times, on 28 January 2009 co-authored by Tim Reid in Washington and Jonathan Clayton in Johannesburg. Here are excerpts: “President Obama wants a fresh approach to toppling Robert Mugabe and is discussing with aides an unprecedented US-led diplomatic push to get tough new sanctions against the Zimbabwe regime. During talks Mr Obama has had with his top Africa advisers in recent weeks, the central idea they focused on was taking the issue of Zimbabwe before the UN Security Council, but for the first time to combine such a move with an intense diplomatic effort to persuade Russia and China not to block the initiative.

According to a senior aide present at the discussions, the goal of taking the issue of Zimbabwe to the Security Council would be to pass a series of ‘strong’ sanctions, including a ban on arms sales and foreign investment [emphasis added]… “A key figure in any new approach will be Susan Rice, Mr Obama’s UN ambassador, who was assistant secretary of state for African Affairs in the Clinton Adminstration and is a Zimbabwe expert. Mr Obama and Dr Rice are also understood to be anxious that Morgan Tsvangirai does not agree to a power-sharing deal with Mr Mugabe that has been under negotiation for weeks. They and other Western diplomats were encouraged by the collapse of talks that regional leaders had convened to make progress on the main issues blocking the formation of a unity government…The US and Britain are anxious that Mr Tsvangirai does not weaken and sign up to a power-sharing deal because the failure to reach an accord helps clear the way to take the issue back to the UN. Zimbabwe will again be discussed at the African Union’s annual summit in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, but little progress is expected to be made. ‘We have leverage over Russia and we are working on China,’ one diplomat told The Times. ‘If SADC talks fail, then the African Union fails, then the deal is dead in the water and the way is clear to take the issue back to the Security Council’.”

Do you now understand Mbeki’s famous phrase, “Western Europe and North America”? Why were the “countries of Western Europe and North America” telling Tsvangirai not to agree to a power-sharing deal with Mugabe? What was the point in wanting to take the matter to the UN Security Council when the Zimbabweans themselves (including Tsvangirai) and the SADC and the AU wanted a home-grown solution? In whose interest would the Security Council “solution” have served – Zimbabwe’s or the West’s? Yet the “countries of Western Europe and North America” have been telling the world that it is rather they who love Zimbabweans so much that they want peace and economic prosperity in Zimbabwe. Well, Malcolm X still lies in his grave and his words still resonates: “If you are not careful, the newspapers will have you hating people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Let’s see the colour of your money, dear countries of Western Europe and North America – lift the economic sanctions on Zimbabwe now!

Written By
Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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