On July 1, Pius Ncube, the Catholic archbishop of Zimbabwe's second largest city, Bulawayo, called on his country's former colonial occupier to invade and topple President Robert Mugabe. "I think it is justified for Britain to raid Zimbabwe and remove Mugabe," Zimbabwe's highest-ranking Catholic prelate told London's Sunday Times. "We should do it ourselves but there's too much fear. I'm ready to lead the people, guns blazing, but the people are not ready." One would not be mistaken to see Ncube as his country's Oscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador, who in 1980 was murdered by the blazing guns of state death-squads for his outspoken opposition to the government's human rights violations.
The impulse to support such an invasion is difficult to dismiss, especially when it comes from a man of the cloth who has himself weathered repeated death threats from government thugs. Mugabe is, after all, one of the world's most vicious dictators. Through his land-seizure policies (which, arguably, he did not intend to have such disastrous effects), his violent displacement of some 700,000 people into the countryside in May of 2005, and, more importantly, his deliberate manipulation of food aid to starve those opposed to his regime, Mugabe has for years been engaging in what one regime critic calls "smart genocide." Rather than engaging in wholesale slaughter, Mugabe is slowly starving his people to death at a rate that may well be faster than what the Sudanese government is inflicting in Darfur.
Great Britain, which was the last authority to administer Zimbabwe when the rebel territory of Rhodesia temporarily reverted back to colonial status from December 1979 until March of 1980, officially handed power over to Mugabe after he won an election marked by intimidation, violence, and other irregularities. From a moral standpoint, Ncube is right to argue that Britain now owes it to the Zimbabwean people to remove the murderous despot it helped install. And he is also right to see foreign intervention as the quickest way to rescue Zimbabwe from its desperate situation. The optimal plan to end Mugabe's rule--through economic and military pressure levied by neighboring African states--is an impossible hope. Unfortunately, however justified, an invasion of Zimbabwe is both militarily and politically infeasible.
Under international law, Britain is entirely justified in removing Mugabe from power. The emerging legal doctrine since the adoption in 1948 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment for the Crime of Genocide, and especially since NATO's Balkan interventions of the 1990s, has been one that recognizes the right of the international community to intercede in countries to prevent genocide or other grave humanitarian crises. In such cases, violating states forfeit their right to claim "sovereignty" as a defense of their crimes. "This developing international norm in favor of intervention to protect civilians from wholesale slaughter is an evolution that we should welcome," former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a 1999 speech to the General Assembly. Whatever Annan's failures in living up to this principle during the 1994 Rwandan genocide (when he served as head of the U.N.'s Department of Peacekeeping Operations) or more recently in the Sudan, this view toward humanitarian intervention is one that liberals should welcome.
From a tactical standpoint, overthrowing Mugabe would not be difficult. His military, while formidable enough to cow the oppressed Zimbabwean people, would be no match for a small contingent of well-equipped Western troops backed by air power. Indeed, while the military is the most important component keeping Mugabe alive, it risks attrition due to Mugabe's inability to pay soldiers, and several coup attempts have been ruthlessly thwarted in the past few months alone. A swift "decapitation strategy," aimed at killing or capturing Mugabe and his top leadership, would topple his regime.
This scenario may sound familiar, but post-Mugabe Zimbabwe is unlikely to devolve into the sectarian strife that has marred post-Saddam Iraq. To be sure, Africa is no stranger to tribal warfare, and Zimbabwe's majority Shona and minority Ndebele tribes have fought bloody battles in the past. But the motivation for Mugabe's rule has long been personal kleptocracy, not the aggrandizement of the Shonas. His reign has been universally oppressive and has thus seriously weakened residual tribal rivalries. Everyone in Zimbabwe is suffering, except the small coterie of ZANU-PF (Mugabe's political party) apparatchiks living off the carcass of this dying regime. Moreover, even if tribal-based violence does result as a consequence of Mugabe's fall, such conflicts could arise in any post-Mugabe scenario, and it is difficult to see how it could be worse than the current situation. The mere existence of Shona-Ndebele sectarianism is not an argument for doing nothing.
But just because Great Britain (or some ad hoc international alliance) is justified in removing Mugabe does not necessarily make such a mission feasible. For one, Zimbabwe is landlocked, and it is unlikely that a neighboring country would provide a staging ground for non-African troops to launch an attack. South Africa, the regional military hegemon, has signed a series of mutual defense pacts with Mugabe that would legally compel it to defend his regime from either an internal or external threat. In other words, as in the first and second Iraq wars, there is no southern African Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, a country pliable to Western demands. Nor is the purely humanitarian motive for removing Mugabe strong enough to compel Britain to pressure African governments otherwise.
A British attempt at overthrowing Mugabe would also pose a major diplomatic rift with China, Zimbabwe's second-largest trading partner after South Africa and a chief supplier of munitions and police gear. For the same reasons that the West has failed to issue credible military threats against the regime in Sudan--where, as in Zimbabwe, the Chinese are aiding a genocide--it will hesitate before risking a diplomatic rift with the Asian behemoth over yet another African tragedy.
The most feasible solution to the Zimbabwean crisis would be for African states, led by South Africa, to exert economic pressure and, failing that, issue direct military threats to Mugabe demanding that he abdicate power immediately. More specifically, South Africa should give Mugabe an ultimatum to step down from office and hand power to a transitional government working in conjunction with the African Union and a U.N. trusteeship authority, or face a swift military defeat at the hands of the far mightier and professional South African National Defense Force. As in any military intervention, there exists the risk of civilian casualties. But they would be minimal compared to what the indefinite continuation of Mugabe's rule would wreak; as it is, thousands are dying every week, and an estimated 3.4 million people--one-quarter of Zimbabwe's entire population--have fled the country.
Unfortunately, such a scenario will not happen anytime soon, if ever. South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) still sees Mugabe as a liberation hero and views Western criticism of him as neo-imperialist. Since his comments were first reported, Ncube has backtracked somewhat, expressing support for the recently launched closed-door negotiations South African President Thabo Mbeki initiated between Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. But there is little reason to believe that Mugabe would ever accede to fully free and fair elections. He knows that he would lose any honest plebiscite, which is why he has rigged every election (all of which were declared legitimate by South Africa and other African nations) since he launched his seizure of white-owned farms in 2000. And, indeed, according to the Sunday Times of South Africa, Mugabe backed out of the talks last weekend, angered at Mbeki's suggestion he step down and accept the adoption of a new Constitution prior to the 2008 presidential election. The South African government denied the report.
Thus, barring some massive ideological shift in the ANC, it appears that the Zimbabwean people are either going to have to wait until Mugabe dies or launch a mass revolt. But neither option would automatically bring relief: Mugabe is robust and healthy, even at 83, and the country is so infected by the ZANU-PF rot that a successor could just prolong the humanitarian disaster. Furthermore, the political opposition to Mugabe suffers from internal divisions, never mind a lack of weapons or a way of obtaining them. If not for the residual anti-Western attitudes of Africa's political leadership--which, if it wanted to, could insist on truly free and fair elections, a restoration of civil rights and the rule of law, and the repatriation of white farmers--Zimbabweans could have rid themselves of Mugabe a long time ago. It's too bad the British can't do the job.