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Britain caused the problems in Zimbabwe, and Mugabe is a byproduct of the British empire

Never forget how we created Robert Mugabe

Zimbabwe has little global significance. Our obsession is a hangover from our colonial pastMichael Holman

So this is the way colonialism really ends - not with the formal flag-lowering ceremony, the Prince of Wales in attendance, that marked Zimbabwe's independence, but with the toothless British bulldog, mouthing gummy platitudes and making empty threats, locked in ignominious verbal battle with a delusional dictator.

Seldom has so much time, space and hot air been devoted to a country that is so inconsequential to British interests. Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, where oil, narcotics or terrorism are deemed grounds enough to warrant British troops, no soldier will die on African soil. No British jobs are at stake, no significant investment in jeopardy, no pension fund risks taking a knock. Tourism has been reduced to a trickle, trade is negligible.

Tibet and Burma surge briefly and fall away, leaving few if any marks on the national psyche. But Zimbabwe endures, as emotive as Suez but without the import. So what explains the national obsession with this far-off land?

Why the acres of newsprint, the opinions of columnists, the editorials in profusion, and the “undercover” dispatch of the BBC heavyweight who looms out from the nation's television each night, the Great Bull Elephant of his profession?

Something must be done, the pundits say. Ministers huff and the Prime Minister puffs - and the effect is negligible. Of course, the human rights abuse in Zimbabwe is outrageous. But does it exceed Darfur, are the numbers trapped in misery greater than in Congo? Does the failure of the state match the collapse in Somalia?

Of course, Zimbabwe matters, albeit for reasons beyond its borders: the crisis is proving contagious, spilling over to its southern African neighbours. Refugees head for South Africa and Zambia; Botswana puts up an electric fence to keep them out; dockworkers refuse to handle a Chinese arms shipment bound for Zimbabwe; divisions between President Mbeki and his successor-in-waiting, Jacob Zuma, worsen; and there have been xenophobic attacks on Zimbabweans in South Africa.

Nevertheless, much of the coverage is driven not by these concerns, but by an atavistic memory of what once was, an ill-concealed frustration on the part of some commentators that it cannot be again, by a yearning for the empire in its pomp - all coupled with that syndrome known as “black hands on white thighs” - fears for the 20,000 or so British who remain.

What is missing is recognition of an unpalatable fact: Robert Mugabe is a creature shaped by British colonial rule. Colonial chickens are coming home to roost.

Most readers will know that it was white settlers who, in the 1890s, occupied the country they were to call Southern Rhodesia. Soon they laid the foundations of the racially skewed land ownership that remains at the heart of its turbulent politics.

Nearly 100 years later, London played midwife to the birth of Zimbabwe, hosting the Lancaster House conference. With an almost audible sigh of relief, Britain welcomed an independent Zimbabwe. But its responsibility lives on. Between the arrival of settlers and the handover to Mugabe in 1980, the UK's record was a shoddy one.

Three decisions stand out:

At the break-up in 1963 of the Central African Federation of Southern and Northern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe and Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) Britain allocated the bulk of the Federal Army to white-ruled Rhodesia. This gave the minority regime of Ian Smith the muscle to make a unilateral declaration of independence two years later, in 1965, and to wage war against black nationalist guerrillas;

Britain effectively vetoed the landlocked Zambia's request in the early 1960s for World Bank funds to build a railway to the port of Dar es Salaam. That forced dependence on trade routes through apartheid South Africa - and rebel Rhodesia;

Britain reneged on the spirit, if not the letter, of a provision in the Lancaster House settlement, intended to tackle the worst feature of the legacy of white rule - that half of the land was owned by whites. The UK contributed in real terms to the buyout of 5,000 white farmers in Zimbabwe just half the amount that it provided for a similar exercise in Kenya in the early 1960s - although that former colony had barely 1,000 white farmers.

No one suggests that Robert Mugabe does not shoulder the bulk of the blame for today's tragedy. Nelson Mandela has shown how leadership can transform a country. But it is this historical involvement in Zimbabwe that gives a unique British dimension and responsibility.

Time is surely running out for Mugabe. But the editorial writers who sharpen their pens in anticipation of his demise may be in danger of missing the point - they should be preparing not only the obituary of a dictator, but an epitaph for an empire that helped to create the ogre we now need to destroy.

Michael Holman, a former Africa editor of the Financial Times, grew up in Zimbabwe. His novel, Fatboy and the Dancing Ladies, is published by Abacus next month.


The Times, "Never forget how we created Robert Mugabe", 02 July 2008.


Channel 4 News, "Moves to remove Mugabe 'knighthood'", 2 June 2008.
    A dictator and a tyrant who is accused of murdering his own people, Mugabe was made an honorary knight by John Major's government in 1994 for "significant contributions" to relations with Britain.
    Five years ago Tony Blair promised to look into withdrawing the knighthood, but nothing happened.

News 24, "No action on Mugabe knighthood", 4 June 2008.
    London - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Wednesday he was against "immediate action" to strip Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe of an honorary knighthood awarded in the early 1990s.

"The Insider" mailing list article, 02 July 2008.

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Tags: Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, Britain, Africa, British, colonial, empire, , conspiracy theories.

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