Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
Jekesai Njikizana / AFP

In the wake of the evolving military coup d’état in Zimbabwe this past week, there is already a concerted effort by some in the media in Britain to begin to construct a totally distorted narrative of the relationship between Britain and Robert Mugabe since 1980. The following essay, “Britain, Mugabe, Zimbabwe, Africa”, written in July 2008 and published as chapter 15 in my Readings from Reading: Essays on African Politics, Genocide, Literature (2011: 95-100), is reissued here, unedited, in response to these multiform revisionist efforts on the history of this key region of the African World:

Despite the unprecedented overdrive of its diplomatic pressure on African heads of regime during the recent African Union assembly in Egypt, Britain failed abysmally to persuade the summit to condemn Zimbabwe’s June 2008 rigged elections (“Brown makes Zimbabwe cash promise”, BBC News, 29 June 2008).

For the Gordon Brown administration, this failure was a disappointing anticlimax in a season of sustained publicity blitz across Britain in which the state and media found a rare common purpose and a convergence of opinion on the subject of the demonisation of Robert Mugabe. The typecasting was unmistakeably swift and assured: Mugabe became the purveyor or indeed inventor of election rigging in Africa, the grotesque human rights violator, the quintessential, fiendishly-sutured African dictator. Even provincial newspaper editors and commentators as well as their radio and television counterparts, usually concerned with more mundane local issues, became instant experts on Mugabe and Mugabeism – such was the frenzy of the times! Thanks to this bizarre British offering of “African history” of the past 50 years, the plaque of shame that lists the cabal of Africa’s notorious heads of regime and genocidist operatives of the age appear casually erased for the occasion: Muhammed, Gowon, Danjuma, al-Bashir, Idi Amin, Mengistu, Bokassa, Awolowo, Buhari, Compaoré, Aminu, Eyadéma, Haruna, Mobutu, Toure, Enaharo, Abubakar, Akinrinade, Patassé, Obasanjo, Are, Gbadamosi King, Habré, Adekunle, Ayida, Ali, Babangida, Taiwo …

The irony of the awkward bind in which Britain currently finds itself in the Zimbabwe saga is fascinating. Britain is absolutely right that Mugabe rigged those elections. But everybody knows that. The African “leaders” at the Sharm el Sheikh summit also know that. More importantly though, they also know that, like Mugabe, each and everyone of them (total of 53 heads of regime), except, possibly, the leaderships of Sénégal, Botswana, Ghana and South Africa, is presently head or beneficiary of a rigged election/no-election regime. Not even Hosni Mubarak, the host of the gathering, could distinguish between a rigged election and one designated “free”/“fair”. It is therefore not surprising that, on the eve of the conference, Mugabe dramatically capitalised on these well-known facts on bogus elections-that-“elect”-bogus leaders in Africa and dared any of his fellow summiteers to criticise his own signature of poll rigging!

“Elections” in Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe

Hardly anyone of them took up that challenge. In the end, it was left to Britain, a supposedly non-member of the AU, to lobby delegates hard in hotel suites, conference halls, committee rooms and corridors to sign up to its “Mugabe illegitimate re-election” resolution quest but without success. For African “leaders” and quite a few other observers, Britain still had to explain the rationale for its policy to pick-and-choose from Africa’s rigged-election catalogue. Whilst it recognised and fraternises with the regimes that emerged from the rigged elections in Nigeria (April 2007) and Kenya (December 2007), it demonises and wants the rest of the world to ostracise the regime that took power after the rigged poll in Zimbabwe (June 2008).

Yet no independent assessments of the three “polls” have shown that the charade in Zimbabwe was any worse than either the one in Nigeria or in Kenya. This is the case if one evaluates the comparative data available on the three countries, focusing particularly on such key indices as: (a) competitive environment for all contestants and their affiliate organisations (b) genuine and free access to vital campaign resources including the ability to form independent political parties (c) raise finance (d) access to publicly-owned media outlets for party broadcasts and advertising (e) access to private media institutions (f) unhindered campaigns in time and space (g) intimidation (h) pre-“poll” levels of violence (i) “poll” day/post-“poll” day levels of violence (j) number of persons murdered (k) number of persons injured (l) homes/other properties damaged or destroyed (m) displacement of persons, and (n) overall state of “stability and security” within the country in the aftermath of the “poll”.

On the very crucial subject of fatality in these “polls”, for instance, more Africans were murdered in Kenya than in Zimbabwe; more Africans were murdered in Nigeria than in Zimbabwe. Finally, it should be stressed that for the regime in Nigeria, unlike its counterparts in Kenya and indeed Zimbabwe, its April 2007 “election” was nothing short of a military campaign – aptly, albeit ominously code-named “operation do-or-die” by regime head Olusegun Obasanjo, a genocidist general in the Nigeria army during the 1966-1970 Igbo genocide. This was Obasanjo’s third election rigging in eight years.


Except Britain is perhaps much more concerned with the destiny of Africans in election-rigging Zimbabwe than those in the rest of other equally election-rigging African countries which include Nigeria and Kenya, the June 2008 rigged presidential poll in Zimbabwe does not, in itself, sufficiently explain the basis of the present British hostility to Robert Mugabe.

One of the myths peddled along the stream of mutual propaganda by both sides in this crisis is to exaggerate the timeframe of the “confrontation”. Contrary to current popular perception, Mugabe has generally had a close and warm relationship with successive British governments during most of his 28 years of absolutist power. Few African “leaders” of comparable disposition have had such ties with Britain in recent history.

We must not forget that the overwhelming majority of victims of Mugabe’s ruthless rule, right from the outset, have been Africans. In 1982-83, two years after he came to power following the “restoration” of Zimbabwean independence, Mugabe ordered the notorious Gukurahundi or the 5th brigade of his military forces to embark on a devastating, murderous campaign against the Ndebele people in the south of the country. (Lance Guma, “Gukurahundi massacres: lessons drenched in blood”,, accessed 10 October 2010).  A total of 20000 Ndebele were slaughtered during the pogrom (Guma, “Gukurahundi massacres”). Mugabe essentially assumed supreme political power across Zimbabwe after these murders. The Ndebele were the core electoral constituency for the ZAPU liberation movement, which, in alliance with Mugabe’s ZANU, had won the pre-“restoration” of independence election organised and supervised by Britain.

At the time of the Ndebele massacre, the British still exercised some administrative “oversight” on Zimbabwean security and land resources, an important feature of the “restoration” of independence settlement worked out in London in 1979/early 1980. Britain was therefore fully aware of the Ndebele atrocity. The Gukurahundi campaign was comprehensively and extensively covered across the world’s media then. In 1984, barely one year after the Gukurahundi outrage, the prestigious Edinburgh University awarded Mugabe an honorary doctorate degree for “services to education in Africa”. Ten years later, the Zimbabwean “leader” made an official visit to London. The British state used the grand occasion to crown its special relationship with Mugabe by appointing him the distinguished honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (Following the June 2008 revocation of this honour, there was consternation and disappointment among some in African-centred intellectual circles in Britain who were unaware that Mugabe had all along, until very recently, been a proud recipient of British knighthood!).

This cosy relationship began souring in the late 1990s. The Tony Blair government that took office in 1997 reneged on making the annual British financial payment to the Mugabe regime (that had been paid since 1980 – part of the London pre-“restoration” of independence settlement) to enable it engage in the perverse venture of “buying back” African lands expropriated by the British invasion of Zimbabwe during the course of the previous century. Mugabe responded by implementing a “land recovery programme”, which should have been part of the strategic goal of the liberation project back in 1980. The Mugabe “version” being executed 20 years later was clearly opportunistic, a hardly disguised stratagem for the personal survival of a dictator.

The compelling lesson of the belated Mugabe-British discord couldn’t be clearer: Mugabe could murder and murder as many Africans in Zimbabwe and trample on their other human rights as he deemed fit but there was a “red line” he mustn’t cross – harm Europeans in Zimbabwe. For Britain, Mugabe’s “land recovery” exercise was just “land robbery” that harmed Europeans in Zimbabwe. He had crossed that “red line” and must be punished!  

First steps

It is not inconceivable that Britain decided to focus on the rigged Zimbabwe poll, rather than address all the others in Africa, as the start to challenging pervasive election-robbery in Africa. After all, one must start somewhere! Maybe Prime Minister Brown wants to re-launch a new “ethical foreign policy” that focuses on Africa after the disastrous collapse of the one initiated by his predecessor (Blair) in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Under the aegis of the former, paradoxically, Britain, in the August-September 2001 conference on racism in South Africa, vehemently opposed African peoples’ calls for reparations from Britain for its central role in the pan-European execution of the African enslavement and occupation and the phenomenal wealth it accrued in the process (Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, African Literature in Defence of History: An essay on Chinua Achebe, 2001: 71-72). In the same period, Britain emerged as the leading arms exporter to Africa, now earning at least US$2 billion per annum At the height of the dreadful wars in the Africa Great Lakes region in 2000, Britain sold weapons to both sides of the conflict. Charles Onyango-Obbo, the respected Ugandan journalist, recalls:

Britain is supporting both sides – it just robs them of any moral authority and a lot of people rightly do despise the British government in this affair. (Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, Biafra Revisited, 2006: 128)

It is never too late to establish this moral position, even after 500 long years ... If indeed Brown’s intention on his Zimbabwe “confrontation” is to embark on a British policy of amends in Africa, the following steps would be profoundly rewarding:

1. Britain has to expand its current “illegitimate”-branding of the Mugabe regime to encompass the two other rigged elections that occurred in Africa since April 2007 – namely, Nigeria and Kenya. Brown will soon be hosting Umaru Yar’Adua, a key participant and chief beneficiary of the April 2007 rigged election in Nigeria, in a London summit. Should Brown be hosting Yar’Adua while ostracising Mugabe? If so, Brown must clarify his position to an understandably highly sceptical world.

2. Britain would need to stop its present “convenient” reading of African recent history on the question of election rigging. Britain, itself, inaugurated election rigging in Africa during the closing days of its formal occupation of the continent. This was its policy of perpetuating its control of politics and economics in Africa even after “withdrawal”. James Robertson, the British occupation outgoing governor in Nigeria, rigged the 1959 pre-“restoration” of independence legislative and executive poll in Nigeria to ensure that power went to pro-British clients in the north region who strenuously opposed the liberation of the country led by Igbo people. There has been no free or fair election in Nigeria since then. Three years earlier, Robertson, then occupation governor in the Sudan, had rigged the poll there in favour of the Arab minority population who are still entrenched in power till this day 

3. Britain was central, along with the Nigeria state, in planning and executing the Igbo genocide of 1966-1970. A total of 3.1 million Igbo, a quarter of the nation’s population then, were murdered. It is the foundational genocide of post-(European)conquest Africa. It was Britain’s “punishment” of the Igbo for daring to lead the struggle for the freeing of Nigeria that began in the mid-1930s. Twice, during that struggle, the British occupation had casually watched two organised pogroms against the Igbo in north Nigeria (1945, 1953) which were dress rehearsals for the subsequent genocide. As I argue in my Biafra Revisited, Britain must apologise to the Igbo for its involvement in this crime against humanity. It should pay reparations to the survivors and lastly, but surely not the least, support current efforts to bring individuals and institutions in Nigeria, Britain and elsewhere involved in this genocide to justice. A number of prominent Nigerians involved in the genocide are still alive and must be indicted unfailingly in international criminal courts: Danjuma, Gowon, Buhari, Babangida, Haruna, Are, Enaharo, Aminu, Gbadamosi King, Abubakar, Obasanjo, Akinrinade, Adekunle, Ayida, Ali, Taiwo …

4. A fortnight ago, Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, a permanent secretary of the regime in Abuja, made an astonishing declaration to a meeting of the country’s senate committee on transport. Baba-Ahmed said that the strategic Onicha bridge, linking east and west Igboland, is “collapsing”. He added, quite lackadaisically, that “there wasn’t anything” his regime could do about this unfolding grave emergency. Millions of Igbo and others use this bridge annually. Successive Nigerian regimes have always regarded Britain as their “most reliable” foreign ally. It is therefore incumbent on the British to advise their Nigerian friends at Abuja, the occupying power in Biafra since 1970, of their international responsibilities on this bridge. The current Yar’Adua regime in Abuja and the previous one should have no doubts whatsoever that they will individually and collectively be held responsible in the international criminal courts for any consequences brought about by the collapse of the Onicha bridge on Igbo life, Igbo property, Igbo income, Igbo opportunities, environmental degradation, etc., etc.

5. Britain is the premier arms exporter to Africa. This is what keeps Africa’s genocide state, the bane of African social existence, very much alive. In turn, this state organises mass slaughters of peoples and nations, asphyxiates opportunities for its citizens, fuels the rigging of elections ... Britain can singularly begin to change this dreadful dynamic by imposing a comprehensive arms embargo on all countries throughout Africa. Brown is not required to go to parliament to seek approval for this historic move. The measure can be taken in the next Tuesday, weekly cabinet meeting: 15 July 2008.

* HERBERT EKWE-EKWE’s books include: ‘Longest genocide - since 29 May 1966 (2016), ‘Readings from Reading: Essays on African Politics’, ‘Genocide, Literature’ (African Renaissance, 2011), ‘Biafra Revisited’ (African Renaissance, 2006), ‘African Literature in Defence of History: An Essay on Chinua Achebe’ (Michigan State University Press, 2001), ‘Africa 2001: The State, Human Rights and the People’ (International Institute for African Research, 1993), and ‘Conflict and Intervention in Africa’ (Macmillan, 1990).



* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to [email=[email protected]]editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org[/email] or comment online at Pambazuka News.