Coup Calling


Sunday's Washington Post featured an op-ed by Paul Collier, professor of economics at Oxford University and author of The Bottom Billion, who advocates for a coup in Zimbabwe:

So how can the grossly excessive powers of the Mugabes and Shwes of the world be curtailed? After Iraq, there is no international appetite for using the threat of military force to pressure thugs. But only military pressure is likely to be effective; tyrants can almost always shield themselves from economic sanctions. So there is only one credible counter to dictatorial power: the country's own army.

Collier wisely notes that the international community has lost its "appetite" for military interventionism, not only in places where it has failed—Iraq and Afghanistan, most recently—but also in places where human rights abuses are happening and Western nations don't have a clue how to curb them—Darfur, Tibet, Myanmar, Equitorial Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo, and well, Zimbabwe.

Regardless of the U.N.'s reticence, Collier argues, a coup backed by Europe or America, and led by the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MCD) and Zimbabwe's military discontents, could take Zimbabwe from dictatorship to democracy quicker than an election:

A truly bad government in a developing country is more likely to be replaced by a coup than by an election: Mugabe will presumably rig the runoff vote scheduled for Friday by intimidation. Or he could follow the example of the last Burmese dictator, who held an election, lost and simply ignored the result.

Calls for a coup are expressions of frustration that Zimbabwe has devolved from the most economically promising country in Black Africa to the most economically depressed, but violent coups in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and Congo (to name but a few) left those countries worse off than before their militaries took the reigns. Ironically, four years ago Paul Collier wrote a very different piece for Foreign Policy, which noted coups occur frequently—and fail just as often:

From 1956 to 2001, only three nations (Botswana, Cape Verde, and Mauritius) did not experience any coups or coup attempts. Overall, 30 African nations experienced 80 successful coups in that period; all of these states, except for the Seychelles, also faced failed coups and plots. Yet coups usually settled nothing; rather, they encouraged other military factions to try their luck. Indeed, 89 percent of African coup attempts during this period targeted military regimes that had themselves staged successful coups earlier.

There's also the issue of who could legitimately back a coup in Zimbabwe: A unilateral western presence would come across as self-interested, geopolitical meddling at worst, waxing Colonial at best; a multilateral force would likely drown in its own bureaucratic bumbling. There's also the African Union and/or South Africa, but where are they now, and where were they three months ago when the assassinations started?

With yesterday's news that Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC—the only viable opposition candidate in Zimbabwe's upcoming presidential election—has decided to drop out of the race after a rash of state-sponsored assassinations and beatings, now's the time to reconsider effective, responsible, and nonviolent methods for promoting economic and personal freedom at home and abroad.

Associate Editor Dave Weigel wrote here about Mugabe's campaign to keep Tsvangirai behind bars.