This summer, just over a fortnight after his landslide victory in Zimbabwe’s presidential elections, and a matter of days after the subsequent announcement that Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC party would legally contest the results, Robert Mugabe touched down in Lilongwe. His presence, along with that of the region’s other leaders, was required at the Heads of State or Government Summit of the Southern African Development Commission (SADC). It was an opportunity for scrutiny and challenge that, inevitably, went begging. On August 8, Malawian state broadcaster MBC reported that president and incoming SADC chair Joyce Banda had wired a message of congratulations to Harare. The SADC’s own report on the Zimbabwean election, meanwhile, claimed ‘general adherence’ to its rigorously worded in-house set of guidelines, a ‘procedural and transparent’ counting process, and congratulated the country on opening ‘a new chapter in the process of consolidation of democracy in the Republic of Zimbabwe.’ Multiple Zimbabwean and South African news sources reported that the SADC attempted to persuade Tsvangirai to withdraw from the election as close to polling day as June.
Written in that confrontational, buck-balled tone seemingly universal to all the world’s outsider governments, official Zimbabwean reports trumpeted each congratulatory message received, mostly from SADC allies. They also boldly claimed the election to be a ‘crushing’ answer to ‘more than a decade of sustained assault by the western powers that [have] sought to depose [Mugabe].’ In other words: the neighbours don’t mind, so hands off. The statement given by Foreign Secretary William Hague shortly after the election was firm in timbre, but gave no indication of any alteration to the current diplomatic arrangement, a precarious but durable structure built primarily out of sanctions and fist-waving.
The current provincial elections – some of which have been cancelled – have, if anything, made matters worse, opening up factions within Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party regarding the medium-to-long term future of Zimbabwe’s ruling cabal. It is unclear what contingencies ZANU-PF have in place for the 89-year old president’s eventual death, but what the presidential election made clear (and the provincial elections are confirming) is that change is unlikely to come from without, and is likely to be messy. But how to help? Zimbabwe’s obvious present dysfunction and the weakness of the SADC’s response to Mugabe’s intransigence throws clearly into focus the fraught moral and political complexity that laces not only past but also present and future western activity in this part of the world.
A hundred and twenty miles north of Lilongwe, in Kasungu National Park, I sit atop Black Rock. It is a protrusion of some several hundred metres that offers views across a county-sized expanse of mostly forested land that is almost entirely uninhabited by people. The sun, the colour of a lit fag-end, is just coming up.
Fifteen years ago, there were two thousand elephants in the park; the number now is less than two hundred. The story is familiar: the combination of a large Asian-centric demand for ivory, local poverty and a lack of governmental police resources creates fertile conditions for poaching. Except, I am told, the Malawians almost certainly camping somewhere in the expanse beneath us are unlikely to see a huge amount: each stands to make little more than fifty dollars or so for a tusk that will most likely be sold in China for tens of thousands. Ivory seems to be making no-one very rich except for a few shadowy middlemen, and certainly offers no more than modest rewards to the locals it relies on to do the dirty work.
It’s doubtful whether an emblem for the intricacies of foreign intervention is necessary – its moral and political complexity is the whole point of much the dialogue surrounding it, after all, and symbols have a tendency not only to distort but also to simplify. But here, at 5 in the morning, one unexpectedly presents itself. On the way down from the rock I ask the Belgian ranger Richard[*] if he’s ever had cause to use the rifle he’s cradling confidently in his hands. Twice, he tells me; both times to fire at poachers. I ask about the protocol if he comes across a poacher in the park: does he shoot to kill? Richard’s response is businesslike. ‘That is not the policy in Malawi. It is in some countries. But not here.’ He lights a cigarette; at odds with the otherwise macho figure cut by his khakis and army-issue bovver boots, it is a menthol one. He makes sure I’m looking him in the eye before continuing. ‘But the park is big, and if something happens, nobody will ever know.’
*Name and nationality have been changed.