The Shadow of Taylor Hangs Over Mugabe

This blog post was submitted by PhD candidate and Government of Ireland Scholar Pádraig McAuliffe, who is reading for a PhD entitled The Serious Crimes Process of East Timor in the Field of Human Rights Law under the supervision of CCJHR Co-Director, Dr. Siobhán Mullally.

In the wake of the recent elections, the question on many lips is when or if Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe will ever voluntarily give up power in the erstwhile breadbasket of Africa. The close nature of the campaign and the failure of a significant portion of the state apparatus to acquiesce in the transparent tampering with the election suggest Mugabe’s control is more tenuous than was previously the case and may be, in nautical parlance, holed beneath the water-line. He is far from sunk, however and remains very much the captain of this listing vessel. Mutiny remains unlikely to be successful. If a maritime lexicon is to be indulged one more time, it is clear the tide has turned. The most relevant question Zimbabwe-watchers might ask is not whether the octogenarian Mugabe is willing to give up power, but whether he is afraid to.

In the past, things were different. The average dictator could commit sundry tyrannies safe in the knowledge that if local disaffection reached a critical mass, a luxury mansion in a neighbouring country awaited where he could spend the incalculable millions siphoned off from systematic kleptomania. So it might have been for Mugabe, who might have relinquished control to a liberal/less repressive Shona Brian Cowan (though it is unfortunate to compare a sophisticated, repression-savvy tribe with Offaly people) or to the MDC and crossed the border to South Africa. There he would no doubt have been welcomed by Thabo Mbeki, whose craven acquiescence to every excess by his neighbour has shamed an ANC who should really know better than to support a militarized, anti-democratic brute. Mugabe may not even have to leave. His predecessor, the odious Ian Smith, could still drive around Harare in an open-topped Range Rover with impunity for years after his ouster from power. Impunity is they key word, however. In the past, impunity was the price victims and the international order for a peaceful exit. The transitional calculus in Africa may still tilt in favour of this, but in the aftermath of Charles Taylor’s transfer to The Hague from exile in Nigeria to the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, what tyrant will ever want to give up power? What credibility have impunity agreements to end conflict when Lomé Peace Accord’s amnesty can be torn up at will by the UN?

Many people, the author included, were heartened when international pressure led to the extradition of Charles Taylor, the Liberian dictator who subjected his own people and those of Sierra Leone to a decade of brutal internecine conflict to the Netherlands. It represented an all-too-rare service by the Bush administration (who pressured the Nigerian Govt to give him up) to the international community and international justice (though cynics, the author once more included, suspect they would do anything to boost these ad hoc, localized organs at the expense of the ICC, but that’s a rant for another day). What we may now be experiencing is the flip-side of this decision – that the Mugabes and Kabilas of this world will only leave their posts in a coffin for fear of arrest and extradition to trial by the very imperialists they have railed against for decades. Former ZANU-PF strongman Edgar Tekere was reported to have told a meeting in January that President Robert Mugabe was afraid of stepping down because he would be tried for his crimes, especially the massacres in Matabeleland in the 1980s. “Mugabe is afraid of his crimes. If he leaves office we will have another Charles Taylor incident. So when Mugabe sits down and thinks of Gukurahundi, he won’t step down.”

The option exists for Mugabe to enter into an agreement with South Africa or Zambia for sanctuary, but it can be worth little more than the paper it is written on if addendums can be added outlawing safety from prosecution for war crimes or crimes against humanity, as was the case in the Lomé accord, signed by rebels and the Government in the Sierra Leone Civil war nine years ago. Providing sanctuary for dictators and mass criminals can cost host countries hundred’s of millions of dollars in punitive sanctions and even more in credibility.

International criminal justice is often justified on the basis of its deterrent effect criminals will refrain from committing criminal acts, even where they desire to commit them and retain the capacity to do so, out of fear of judicial punishment. Even leaving aside the obvious flaws in the theory (most mass criminals initially presume their cause will win out and that they will never be held to account, or reason that in defeat, they will not be apprehended),the opposite may now be happening – leaders who might otherwise retire due to old age or unpopularity are now deterred from quitting their bloody reigns by the spectre of the ICC. Once more, the world must ask how willing it is to prioritise the vindication of human rights through retrospective prosecutions over the prospective realisation under a successor regime