The lesser of two incredibly awful evils

Yesterday, when I pointed out that ordinary Zimbabweans were probably better off under Ian Smith than they now are under Mugabe, I received the horrified accusation that I was defending Rhodesia's racist regime. Hardly; a baby is better off having its throat cut than being burned to death, but this is not a good reason to kill babies. We shouldn't have to choose between racism and riots, and I deny that these are the only two possible equilibria.

But Timothy Burke says it better than I do:

There remains little that most outside interests can do. Even most sanctions don’t strike me as being potentially effective. I had to really stifle a thunderbolt of rage at one posting on a scholarly listserv that I read when one scholar proferred the argument that although Mugabe is a tyrant, it’s really the fault of the United States and Great Britain, and that the real political challenge is to keep them from interfering. That’s a tragic case of stupid addiction to old dogma, dogma that was analytically wrong-headed in the first place. If I could think of a way for the US and UK to usefully interfere beyond what they’re doing already, I’d encourage them to do it. Western intellectuals and scholars concerned with Africa often still treat sovereignty as an obsessive and magical political objective, as if its mere fact insures a better world.

Or more dubiously, treat some African states today as if they have yet to achieve sovereignty. I think it’s perfeclty fair to say that there are postcolonial states in Africa who have never had a functioning government, nor have ever achieved any kind of central control over the territory marked for them on the map. Zimbabwe is not one of those states. The people in power now, who have been in power for twenty-eight years, have long had a great measure of control over their territory. Zimbabwe is the opposite of the conventional “failed state”: its rulers have very significant capacity for violence and political control across most of their national territory, even with the economy in tatters. It’s demonstrates perfectly that the mere achievement of sovereign power and strong governmental authority guarantees nothing, improves nothing. When some contemporary Zimbabweans mutter that the last twenty years or so of Rhodesian power were preferable to the last decade of independence, it’s hard to disagree. That this statement alone is more likely to horrify concerned Western liberals than any number of ghastly utterances by Zimbabwean authorities in the last decade says a lot about the limited perspectives of those liberals. It’s not that we should have to choose between Smith’s Rhodesia and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: the former was forever stunted, the latter an unending disaster. The problem is with those who believed and sometimes continue to believe that the mere fact of succession by Mugabe over Smith was progress in its own right.

Update these comments are taking an ugly turn. People concluding from their sketchy reading of news articles about a handful of African countries that the entire continent is therefore incapable of self rule need to do a lot more reading.