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Unpacking the political madness of Michael Sata

By Pedzisai Ruhanya

Well before his election as Zambian leader in September last year Michael Sata was a supporter of President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF party, notwithstanding previous foreign policy positions of his predecessors, Sadc and AU concerns about lawlessness and, most importantly, the abuse of state institutions by those in charge in this country to remain in power.

Pedzisai Ruhanya is a human rights researcher
Pedzisai Ruhanya is a human rights researcher

Sata is of the view that because Mugabe is one of the many Zimbabwean nationalists who participated in the liberation struggle his leadership, irrespective of egregious human rights violations, lawlessness, economic ruin and stolen elections, should not be challenged.

Put simply, Sata thinks Zimbabweans should not exercise agency in how they are governed and even if they do and democratically win elections, that should be ignored.

Sata’s view of the Zimbabwean problem is not based on rational policy positions but misguided nostalgic considerations of the liberation struggle. Since he assumed power last year, Sata has not outlined any useful policy positions that can persuade Zimbabweans to appreciate his approach.

Sata has publicly supported Mugabe since he came into power and actually intensified this backing during the Sadc summit in Luanda, Angola, last week.

He supports Mugabe’s untenable position of having elections without reforms as agreed under the Global Political Agreement (GPA), a move which repudiates previous Sadc resolutions including those made in Livingstone in his own country in March last year.

It is not clear why Sata is going against Sadc and AU positions on Zimbabwe and why he continues to help undermine political and democratic processes in the country. There must be an explanation though to this political madness.

However, Sata should realise the Zimbabwean problem has cost lives, the economy and the people’s future in many respects. Zimbabweans have been victims of systematic and widespread abuses under Mugabe’s rule.

They have, among others, been subjected to electoral malpractices, institutionalised political violence, excesses of partisan security forces and attempts at systematic indoctrination through abuse of the public media that work as propaganda tools of Zanu PF. These are some of the issues Zimbabweans and Sadc want resolved before the next elections.

In order to appreciate Sata’s position, it is critical to interrogate why states take decisions that they do at the international level or adopt certain foreign policies and what influences such positions. The theory of realism as postulated by scholars such as Benjamin Frankel and Oona Hathaway could assist unravel Sata’s position on Zimbabwe.

Realism scholars make critical assumptions about the world such as states are the primary and most powerful actors in the international sphere; the world is anarchic since there is no power over states and no state may command another, there can be no order in international relations; states seek to maximise their security power; the world has limited resources that are evenly distributed and so they see states as primarily focused on maximising power and security and that states behave rationally in their pursuits of security or power.

In the majority of cases, when states make their foreign policies or sign treaties with other states, they look at those realist assumptions with a view to getting the best deals from such relations. If you audit the position of Sata, it is difficult to see what he is trying to get out of the problems in Zimbabwe by lending support to Mugabe.

The majority of Sadc leaders have taken a position on Zimbabwe based on their national interests —  the need to protect their economies and citizens from the influx of Zimbabweans, making the region politically stable and therefore attract investment that could lead to expansion of their economies through foreign investments, thus creating opportunities and employment for citizens.

It is important to note there is a major division within the realism school of thought regarding how states measure the maximisation of power. Under classic realist theory states seek to make absolute gains in their power. A realist state does not care whether other states gain in a transaction as long as things go its way.

Could this be the position of Sata? If it is, then it is important for the region and Zimbabweans to know what Sata intends to gain from supporting Mugabe. In Zimbabwe, Sata supports what is unacceptable in his own  country, everything he fought against in Zambia. This is oxymoronic behaviour.

Realist scholars tend to view the world as a series of prisoners’ dilemmas. The classic prisoners’ dilemma involves two suspects arrested for a crime. The suspects agree in advance not to say anything. The police interrogate them separately and offer each leniency in return for a confession. If neither suspect cooperates, they will only face a lighter sentence for a lesser included offence.

If both suspects confess, they will both go to prison for the full crime though they will get some leniency for their cooperation. If only one suspect confesses, that suspect will get lenience while the other gets the maximum sentence for the full crime.

The best overall outcome for both suspects is when both choose not to confess. For each individual the best outcome is to confess while the other sticks to their agreement not to say anything. If either suspect believes the other will cheat by confessing, it is in their interest to also cheat and confess.

Unless the two suspects are incredibly committed to their agreement this prisoners’ dilemma tends to end in both suspects confessing to protect themselves against worst possible outcome and possibly obtain the best outcome. The basic idea from the prisoner’s dilemma can be translated into the international relations sphere.

For example, states will follow the Third Geneva Conventions (which protects prisoners of war and wounded soldiers) as long as they believe other states will also comply. Yet if one state suspects or knows that another state is violating the convention, that state would be motivated to break the treaty.

In the Zimbabwean case, the majority of Sadc states support the GPA and the Sadc principles and guidelines governing the conduct of democratic elections which Zanu PF opposes. Apparently Sata is opposing these principles by blindly supporting Mugabe.

The problem with realists is that they must find some benefit for states in agreeing to and complying with international human rights  and  good governance norms. Even if such a benefit could be found, realists would need to show why there would be a strong incentive to cheat under the prisoner’s dilemma.

Zambia as a member of Sadc and member of the Sadc troika should in the interest of transparent and accountable leadership explain its policy position on Zimbabwe.

Pedzisai Ruhanya is a PhD candidate on Media and Democracy Studies at the University of Westminster, London.