A year of African elections: The West judges Zimbabwe differently from others, and that may not be a bad thing

The Western world judges Zimbabwe at a higher standard than it does other African countries, and that’s not entirely a bad thing.

The temptation is to demand that the EU and US use the same low standards on Zimbabwe as they use elsewhere on the continent, where they turn a blind eye to sham elections and ply nations led by violators of human rights with aid and investment.

However, there is no reason why Zimbabwe should not, even without the incentive of foreign assistance, aspire to the high standards in Europe on decent elections and open societies.

Many commentators will say what drives the EU and US positions on Zimbabwe is the country’s broken politics. This is true, but it’s only part of the picture. Broadly, the West treats countries differently based on geopolitical and economic interests; countries that are positioned to be allies in the war against terror, and those that produce oil, will be given a longer leash than countries like Zimbabwe, which offer very little in return.

And where countries like Zimbabwe that offer little by way of security and economic benefits to Western giants act waywardly, by doing stuff such as upsetting the core capitalist values of property rights via white land takeovers, then they will be made an example of.

As it stands, despite a full embassy in Harare – and a very large new one being built for US$200 million – and the presence of aid agencies and dozens of diplomats, it may be puzzling to realise that America’s entire foreign policy on Zimbabwe is being driven by two right wing Senators in Washington. But it should not be that puzzling. The only thing that’s surprising is our belief that we are somehow special. We are not.

America and the EU treat Zimbabwe harshly, compared to other countries. Instead of seeing this as a curse, perhaps it’s a blessing; we can be better than others.

The past one year has been a long, useful lecture on US and EU hypocrisy. It’s therefore important to look at how the EU and US have responded to other cases of democratic deficiencies on the continent in 2018, and what Zimbabwe can learn from each particular case.


Earlier this year, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, an army man who grabbed power via a coup reversing all that feel-good Arab Spring stuff, won an election with 97% of the vote.  The result was hardly surprising; he was virtually running against himself. All the other real contenders pulled out; the main rival was arrested and his campaign chief was beaten up. The rest withdrew out of fear. The one contestant left was an avowed supporter of al-Sisi.

Within months of such a sham poll, the USA released $1.2 billion in military assistance to Egypt. The IMF, pleased with al-Sisi’s reforms which include raising taxes and cutting subsidies, including on fuel, bread and electricity, approved a $2 billion tranche of Egypt’s $12 billion extended fund facility.

Zimbabwe is unlikely to get any such bailout; Egypt is key to US interests in the Middle East, so they get a pass. We are of no such strategic importance, plus we owe people money.


In November, the Nigerian army shot into a crowd of over a thousand protesters in the capital, Abuja, and killed 45 mostly young people. To justify the killings, the army used Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, in which he said a rock is just as deadly a weapon as a gun. In response, the US urged “calm and restraint on all sides” and let it all slide.

Nigeria is not just an oil producer, but it is a useful US ally in the fight against Islamic extremism. Zimbabwe is neither.


Armed forces stand guard outside a polling station after violence in Mali elections

In August, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita won a 67% victory in a run-off against opposition rival Soumaila Cissé Keita. How did that election go?

In the first round, 644 polling stations, almost 14% of the total, didn’t open at all because they were attacked and burnt down by militants. Electoral officials were attacked, ballot boxes were grabbed and burnt. Some 300 people were killed in ethnic violence in the months leading to the election.

Some 250,000 people, 3% of the electorate, could not vote because of violence in the central and Northern parts of Mali, and Cissé accused Keita of stuffing ballot boxes there. The opposition claimed fraud; they said by their calculations, some voters cast their ballots in just 40 seconds at some polling stations, while in others, 100% of the votes went to Keita. This is all very familiar, right?

The opposition went to court to challenge that first-round election, and the court dismissed their case. The EU congratulated Keita on his re-election, and added, nonchalantly: “European Union expects all the stakeholders to work together to promote the interests of their country and their people.”

And was the election, in which polling stations were burnt down and large populations could not vote, and in which the opposition cried fraud, credible? The EU said “our observers did not see fraud but irregularities”. And that was that.

With al Qaeda and Islamic State active in parts of Mali, the West cannot afford to shake too many tables as it would easily do in Zimbabwe.


Cameroonian Gendarmerie patrol in Omar Bongo Square in Buea, Cameroon’s majority anglophone southwest province capital, during a political rally for Paul Biya, Oct. 3. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

Over in Cameroon, we have Paul Biya, who has held power for 36 years and occasionally visits the country to rule it from his base in Switzerland.

In October, he won another term after an election in which half of his country did not vote. He was congratulated by the US State Department.

Biya won 71.28% in that poll. Maurice Kamto, the opposition leader, had declared himself the winner a few hours after the polls closed. His party was declared to have won just 14%, so he refused to attend Biya’s inauguration. Familiar.

Kamto’s campaign manager declared: “We don’t recognise Biya as the president of the republic.” Also familiar.

Cameroon currently has trouble in the English-speaking North, where rebels are fighting for secession. Only 10% of the people there came out to vote. Up to 60% of polling stations in the north did not open. People were too scared of violence.

And who was running the election? Biya’s Minister of Territorial Administration supervises the poll. Before the election, a company linked to the Minister, Paul Nji, predicted an 81% win for Biya. Members of Nji’s elections body are also working on Biya’s private projects, including on a book he is writing.

Desperate for endorsement, Biya even cooked up fake observers. A group calling itself Transparency International came out on state TV to declare the elections as “extremely good”. It turned out it was fake Transparency International. The real Transparency International had to issue a statement saying it was nowhere near the election.

There were no EU or US observers. Still, as soon as Biya declared himself winner, the US issued a statement congratulating him for “largely peaceful elections”. As for half the country being unable to vote, and Biya’s minister running the election, the US said these “irregularities may not have affected the outcome”.

The EU admitted that “some parts of the population were unable to take part in the vote”, but said it expected “the President-elect to bring together all stakeholders to overcome the challenges facing the country”. And that was that.

Within weeks of Biya stealing the poll, France’s EDF Group and the World Bank’s IFC signed a $1.3 billion power deal with Cameroon. The Director General of General Electric Africa, Farid Fezoua, with the US ambassador in tow, paid a visit on Biya early December to arrange billions.

Quickly forgotten were the videos that went viral in July, showing Biya’s military officers executing women and children. 

But, of course, Cameroon has oil and is also fighting Islamic militants. They too get a pass, unlike Zimbabwe.



A woman stands behind policemen during post election clashes, in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

After disputed elections in 2017, police shot and killed dozens during opposition protests. The independent Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, in a report on the violence, said 92 had been killed, and dozens others sexually assaulted. Human Rights Watch said police killed up to 67 people.

“Victims and witnesses told researchers that as protesters ran away, police pursued them, kicking down doors and chasing people down alleyways, shooting and beating many to death,” the report says.

As for the first election itself, a court ruled that there had been errors in vote tally transmission, ordering a fresh run, which was boycotted by the opposition. The interference was brazen; the man in charge of IT for Kenya’s elections body was abducted and murdered.

According to the EU, “the Kenyan people, including five million young people able to vote for the first time, did not fully enjoy their democratic rights as legally foreseen for all Kenyans”.

All this did not stop the US’ Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Gil Kaplan, to lead a delegation of 60 American business executives to Nairobi in June, where they signed $100 million worth of deals. Uhuru Kenyatta was still welcomed at White House this August.

Where businesses see the chance of profit, something Zimbabwe’s small population and its forex mess does not guarantee, and where Kenya is a US ally in the geopolitics of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, then the standard of fair elections is lowered. Zimbabwe offers neither guaranteed profits nor a role in US security interests.


Joao Lourenco waits to cast his vote in Luanda, Aug 23, 2017. (REUTERS/Stephen Eisenhammer)

Angola held elections in August 2017, with no observers from EU and much of the West. The government simply refused to allow the observers access to all parts of the country, so the EU decided not to send observers.

When the EU demanded that its observers be allowed to go to all parts of the country unrestricted, as one expects observers to, Angola’s foreign affairs minister declared: “This is Africa. We do not expect anyone to impose on us their means of observing elections or to give lectures.”

And that was that. Angola didn’t bend over backwards for EU observers as Zimbabwe did.

With its banks facing crisis due to bad loans and the country suffering forex shortages, caused by weaker oil prices, Angola in August said it needed an IMF bailout. On December 8, the IMF announced a $3.7 billion credit facility for Angola and immediately disbursed $990 million.

Angola’s public-debt-to-GDP ratio is 80%. They too owe many people money.

Since he took over power from Eduardo dos Santos, President João Lourenço has dismantled the control his predecessor’s family had over the country’s oil and finances. The IMF is especially pleased with “JLo’s” reforms; just like in Zimbabwe, he has raised taxes – he introduced a new VAT – and eliminated subsidies.

And, just like in Zimbabwe, Lourenço has shut down informal markets and moved to tax informal trade, which accounts for up to 90% of Angola’s fiscal system. This December, IMF head Christine Legarde is to visit Luanda. Oil does wonders for relations.

On our own
Yes, the world is unfair on Zimbabwe. It imposes standards on Zimbabwe that it does not impose on others. They expect, it would appear, less of other African nations than they do of Zimbabwe.

Yet, those high standards are not anything that Zimbabweans do not deserve, in any case.

For example, we could have seen people shot my security forces and moved on, like they did in Kenya. But, for all the other drama before it, the commission on the August 1 violence made sure this would be a big deal.

The West has turned a blind eye to more brazen voter fraud and widespread electoral violence in many polls on the continent this year. For all the election’s faults, we did not close out certain areas to observers, kill election officials, burn down polling stations or bar half the country from voting. Others did, and they are moving forward with the West’s help.

We could beg to be judged by those low standards too, and point to other countries and engage in whataboutery, but we should aspire for better, despite the blatant hypocrisy. Africa deserves better.

Zimbabwe, coming in from outside, had to make an extra effort to be good this year. But even where it was evidently better than others, or at least no worse, it still was not good enough.

The West are hypocrites, clearly, and their hypocrisy must be called out. But the reality that Zimbabwe must live with, and deal with, is that the world is indeed unfair, and this is unlikely to change. 

Zimbabwe’s leaders must find their way around that reality, for the benefit of their people, or they are of no use to their country whatsoever.


  1. “We could beg to be judged by those low standards too, and point to other countries and engage in whataboutery, but we should aspire for better, despite the blatant hypocrisy. Africa deserves better.”
    That’s exactly what this article is trying to argue, full of contradictions, whataboutery and self-pitying.
    I finds it hugely naive that the writer believes that the entire US policy on Zimbabwe is driven by 2 senators. This is the same naivety that will keep the country backward.
    This is akin to Zimbabwe forcing herself onto an unwilling suitor. We have been fed lies about the all-weather friends from the East.
    When are you going to write about the “Look East” policy?