Time to take away Mugabe’s honorary knighthood

In 1994 Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, was made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath by Queen Elizabeth II.  This means he can put the letters KCB behind his name, but cannot use the title “Sir”.  Since then, Robert Mugabe has gone from freedom fighter and leader of a liberation movement to dictator, despot, thug and tyrannical leader of one of the most brutal and murderous regimes in the world.

His economic mismanagement has ruined a once-prosperous country.  Hyperinflation and, on conservative estimates, a 60% decline in real GDP are but two indicators of the massive decline in living standards suffered by the vast majority of the population.  Poverty and malnutrition have exploded.  Life expectancy has collapsed beyond even what could have been expected because of the regional incidence of HIV/Aids. Millions of Zimbabweans have become refugees, many of them in South Africa, where their arrival has caused large-scale riots by poor native South Africans who view them as competitors for jobs and housing.

In a desperate bid to hang onto power, Mugabe’s henchmen use intimidation, torture, rape and murder to scare the opposition into submission.  The increasing violence and growing economic and administrative dislocation are driving the country to a state of complete anarchy.  It is not even clear any more at this point whether the violence, which was originally instigated from the centre, is still centrally managed or whether there is now an almost complete loss of central control – a collapse of the state.

Taking away Mugabe’s honorary knighthood would be no more than a weak symbolic gesture – tilling at windmills.  But even weak symbolic gestures are better than doing nothing, which has been the preferred course of action by the leadership of the one country that could have, and still can, intervene in Zimbabwe with some reasonable chance of success. That country is the Republic of South Africa.  It is an indictment of President Mbeki’s leadership, courage, moral integrity and vision that he and his government were willing to let a neigbouring regime commit crimes against humanity, year after year, and on a growing scale, when the means to pull the plug on Mugabe’s criminal government were readily available.  South Africa is the source of most of Zimbabwe’s electrical power, for instance.  It is also Zimbabwe’s key trading partner.  So even if President Mbeki and his government don’t have the stomach for removing the Zimbabwean despot by force, they could have turned the screws on his miserable regime a lot more effectively than they have done.  Thabo Mbeki’s ‘Quiet Diplomacy’ was quiet indeed, but achieved nothing.  The South African President’s  impotent mutterings in response to the flagrant human rights violations and crimes against humanity in Zimbabwe amounted to de-facto tacit support for the thuggish Mugabe regime. The price for this cowardice and lack of vision is being paid not just in Zimbabwe but also in South Africa.

If there is any justice in the world, Robert Mugabe will live long enough to be tried by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.  If lives can be saved in Zimbabwe (and possibly elsewhere, including South Africa), by offering the tyrant a bolt-hole where he can live out the rest of his miserable life, that is probably a price worth paying.  There must be an inhospitable, windswept island somewhere off the coast of Africa, where Mugabe and his cronies could engage in socially productive menial labour in exchange for their lives. 

But in the mean time, let’s take away his honorary knighthood.  The UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee called for this in 2003.  I don’t understand why no action has been taken on this since then.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website