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Page last updated at 12:15 GMT, Friday, 25 April 2008 13:15 UK

Is there a world?

Voters in Zimbabwe

By Clive James

People might want the world to intervene to help the suffering, but it's just not that straightforward.

Kevin Rudd, the prime minister of my homeland, Australia, covered himself with glory early this month by telling the Chinese leadership that China's behaviour in Tibet raised human rights issues.

Konnie Huq carries the torch surrounded by Chinese security guards
Kevin Rudd was not keen on the Chinese blue tracksuit unit doing security

He said that Australia recognised China's sovereignty over Tibet, which you might think was still an issue in itself for some Tibetans, but at least he had said something. And he said it in Mandarin so the Chinese couldn't mistake his meaning.

He sent another message, in English this time, by means of British journalists to whom he entrusted the warning that Australia would not tolerate the idea of the blue-suited Chinese security heavies who accompany the Olympic torch actually doing anything about security when the torch passed through Australia. They could model their blue suits - that would be it.

Put these two messages together and they added up to something the Chinese could understand, even if they didn't like it. Liberal in the best sense, this clarity of voice was especially welcome at a time when, back in Australia, Mr Rudd's celebrated Summit - with a capital "s" - was producing at least one suggestion that didn't sound very liberal at all.

Mr Rudd's Summit is billed as a meeting of all the best minds in the country to decide what policies Australia should adopt next, Mr Rudd's own party apparatus having apparently neglected to think of any during their 11 years out of power.

Kevin Rudd
Kevin Rudd also delivers messages in Mandarin

It seems that at least one of these minds has decided that any Australians who are deemed insufficiently eco-friendly should have their citizenship withdrawn. Speaking as one who might very well fail to meet the criteria of eco-friendliness - I used power tools to build my windmill - I could be a candidate for withdrawn citizenship.

The proponents of this initiative have not yet said what will happen to those whose citizenship gets withdrawn, but in the event of a resolution that they be deported, I am rather glad to have deported myself already. Mr Rudd has not bound himself to any proposals that might be agreed on by his Summit talking-shop beyond a promise to take them under advisement.

But the possibility that at least some of the best minds might be talking illiberal tripe must have struck him already, so it's a relief to find that he has talked turkey to the Chinese. Not all of the turkey, perhaps, but as much of the turkey as can usefully be talked without a threat to intervene effectively against Chinese government policies, which would be a task beyond even the combined ingenuity of Australia's best minds.

Deaf ears

When we come to the question of Zimbabwe, things get harder, and precisely because in Zimbabwe's case an effective intervention looks a bit less impossible than giving instructions to the sea. Economic sanctions, for example, might work, even in the face of Mr Mugabe's time-tested capacity to pass any imposed hardships along to his increasingly impoverished people.

Clive James
everybody suspects, but not everybody says - that still gives Mr Mugabe room to believe that the time has not yet arrived when he must deport himself

In September last year Gordon Brown published an article in the Independent in which he indicated that Britain was the second biggest donor to Zimbabwe's relief funds, but might not continue to be so if Mr Mugabe did not relinquish power. Mr Brown also said that, as far as he was concerned, if Mr Mugabe was present at the upcoming EU-Africa summit then he, Mr Brown, might have to be absent.

Mr Brown's feelings were clear enough, but as a call to action they have been somewhat clouded by his later exhortations that the world must do something. By the world he apparently means all the nations that have condemned Mr Mugabe's reluctance to let go.

In this case, however, it isn't at all clear that the world can be said to exist. The world only partly includes South Africa, for example. To their credit, the South African courts have put a stop to the Chinese ship-load of small arms heading for Zimbabwe, small arms which Mr Mugabe might well have employed to influence those who have voted against him already and thus ensure that they would be less ready to do so next time. But the president of South Africa, Mr Mbeki, has still not told Mr Mugabe that it's all over.

This reluctance can only encourage Mr Mugabe's apparent conviction that it isn't all over. Similarly, alas, the UN has so far offered little beyond an assurance that it will supply observers and helpers for a new election, or a run-off for the old one, or whatever the event might be called. But everybody knows that there has already been an election and everybody suspects that Mr Mugabe lost it. If that were not so, Mr Mugabe would have announced the result.

So we are in a condition where everybody suspects, but not everybody says. That still gives Mr Mugabe room to believe that the time has not yet arrived when he must deport himself to somewhere else in the world and end his life in poverty.

For indeed there are people abroad who think that Mr Mugabe never stole anything and that it is racism to say that he did. According to them, Mr Smith's white government stole everything, and then the white farmers who stayed on in Zimbabwe stole everything again, and all that Mr Mugabe ever did was take it back, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. They are rather stuck, though, with the question of how he contrived to make the poor even poorer.

American idol

Still, even while waiting for the world to unite on this issue, Mr Brown comes out looking determined. It hasn't been an easy fortnight for him, because the best minds on his staff decided that it would be a wise move for him to visit the United States at the same time as the Pope.

Gordon Brown arrives at Andrews Air Base

The Pope arrived in a large aircraft supplied by Alitalia and Britain's prime minister should have arrived in a large aircraft supplied by BA. But BA had no spare aircraft, only a mountain of spare luggage left over from the Terminal 5 triumph.

So Mr Brown arrived in the US in a charter aircraft and cut the kind of figure the British press strangely most likes to report on: the British leader being outshone by any other leader.

It's true that Tony Blair used to be harder to outshine. But Mr Brown also faced the problem that the Americans not only agreed with him about Zimbabwe, they had already spoken out even more roundly. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had called Mugabe's regime a disgrace and even Mr Bush, putting two and two together and getting the right result for once, had concluded that his chosen honest broker, Mr Mbeki, had not done enough brokering.

The Pope greeted by George Bush as he arrives in Washington DC
... and contrast

From that, you would think that Mr Mugabe would have had the tactical sense to identify the US as the number one enemy of his regime. After all, everybody else blames America for everything. But Mr Mugabe - and this is almost a source of pride - continues to blame Britain. The awkward thing, however, about Britain being placed first on the despot's list of villains is that the onus of action is also placed on Britain.

What should the action be? I wish I knew. This week my website got a letter from a citizen of Zimbabwe who no longer lives there but would clearly like to live there again. He said some nice things about an article I had written in favour of the Palestinians' desire for their own state, and how a policy of indiscriminate suicide-bombing could only ensure that they would never get it.

On the strength of my analysis, which he agreed with although he had never been to the Middle East, he asked me to write something about Zimbabwe before it was too late. Well, I've never been to Zimbabwe, and even if I had, I doubt I could write anything that would affect the course of events to even the smallest degree. But I feel obliged to have an opinion, as we all do. Just imagine the kind of courage that it would take to vote against Mr Mugabe all over again, and try not having an opinion about that.

My opinion about Zimbabwe, far from being original, is pretty much the same as Mr Brown's opinion. I have been following Mr Brown's statements of policy with care, not as if my life depended on them, but as if the life of my desperate correspondent from Zimbabwe would depend on them if he were still there.

I think I can see what Mr Brown is after - he is trying to send a message to anyone in the political class in Zimbabwe who is fearless enough to realise that there is a better chance of the aid money being sent in if Mr Mugabe is sent out.

Money talks

In the absence of a united world, which can only mean the armed force that the UN has conspicuously not yet mentioned, there is no other kind of intervention available except a promise of hard currency to supplant a currency which inflation has turned to liquid mud. To promise that, and to promise that Zimbabwe can't have the aid money until Mr Mugabe takes off.

Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe in full rhetorical flow

Where he goes to is a separate question, and less important. Where do we go, we deported ones who have been stripped of our citizenship for capital crimes, eco-negligence in my case, the wilful destruction of his own nation in the case of Mr Mugabe?

There's always somewhere. Idi Amin, now a mere memory, never faced justice in Uganda. He faced it in a hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, not far from the Sands Hotel, where he had spent the last years of his life finding out that no matter how much money you steal from your people, it can't buy you immortality.

Omnipotence, yes, but only for a time, and Robert Mugabe's time has come. All we have to do is get him to agree. Hence my message to my correspondent from Zimbabwe, whose friends are still there to face whatever happens next: good luck to them, and I only wish that they could depend on us.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I congratulate Clive James for his perceptive commentary upon a range of situations that all fall within the category that stimulates most people to say "something must be done", whilst reality checks demand that each one of us must also ask the question "precisely what should be done ?" That's the tricky one. Archbishop John Sentamu of York has made a start, by cutting up his clerical collar until such time as Zimbabwe has been released from the grip of Robert Mugabe. Some may scoff but it's a start and is moving in the right direction, especially if one is a keen observer of the state of Archbishop's collars. Sadly, it's far too easy to poke fun at non-committal politicians, when the truth is, that most of us are as guilty of glib assessments and devising panaceas for achieving change that are just as wishy-washy when one considers the consequences.
Graham Vine, Bordon, England

If the expected 'run-off' for president occurs, most Zimbabweans, particularly in the countryside, will be very frightened to vote. It reminds me of the situation in East Timor at the time of the vote for independence from Indonesia. Is it too much to ask of democratic nations that they make sure people can safely vote? We need a massive peaceful invasion of ordinary people from all free nations to watch over every village and every polling booth. I would willingly holiday in Zimbabwe for this purpose and I'm sure millions of others would too. It would be take some organising, but what are politicians for? It would be difficult for Zim heavies to turn away tourists, bringing valuable hard currency.
Nancy Ray, Adelaide, Australia

Perhaps the question might be added: is there humanity? Am I just becoming an old crank or is the world actually becoming more unthinkingly polarised, superficial, and self destructive? Although I'm not an Obama fan, I can see why young people would like to see someone they believe offers some hope. Unfortunately offering and delivering are two different phenomena. Is it at all possible that we could wake up and remember how to live together, appreciating our differences and refusing to be manipulated by media giants and their friends, warmongers and their friends?
Hannah Wilder, Taunton, UK

Why does the United Kingdom of Great Britain feel that it still has the right to intrude and loot another country? I am not justifying Mr Mugabe's style of government (he could certainly do much better with judicious resource management and humanity), but I believe that somewhere, as a Zimbabwean, he has a legitimate right in preventing Zimbabwe into becoming Rhodesia again. Please do not pretend that Mr Brown is solely concerned with aid money being used effectively; this is one of the greatest understatements I have ever heard to cover political interests.
Vedish, London

I left Zim a year ago, l was born and bred there. The only thing l believe that will change Zim now is if the world actively stepped in. How much more can the hungry beaten people take? Even Morgan Tsvangirai is in hiding. Zanu PF only know violence and intimidation, they will not stop unless taken down and l am afraid the people in Zim are scared and weak from starvation and beatings. This won't end until the army and militia are taken down. The body cannot live with gangrene the rot has to be removed.
Nicolle Karsten, Australia

I resided there for 30 years before moving to Mozambique where I could hopefully earn real money like US dollars. The whole thing failed dismally due to another African country rejecting help, claiming it was exploitation. So after half my life in Africa I returned to Australia tail between my legs. A continent with such wealth in land and minerals should not be allowed to deliberately starve itself in the name of sovereignty.
Zambesi Dave, Hope Island, Australia

All that remains within me is an immovable sentiment that those that commit the greatest injustice should face the greatest justice. For the sake of the developing world - which is all of it.
CyberDoc, London

If I had the military expertise I would have acted myself. It's useless for us for the west to wait for him to go. Mugabe knows that he has failed, he knows too he has lost the elections, but if he knows too that no-one is there to challenge him is not going anywhere. Starving, dying people do not have the courage nor the money to buy weapons and fight, because Mugabe wants a fight, he doesn't just want to leave. As a matter of fact his army generals are responsible for feeding him with ideas of war and acting out on his own people. He is not living in the world today, he is living the old days of Rhodesia during the liberation war. Waiting will only create deeper wounds.
Rhoda Masei, US

Why is it that intelligent, kind, thoughtful people are never the people who run the country, or have I just answered my own question? How about you and Bob Geldof putting up for prime minister and deputy? What a wonderful, kind world it would be. Your writing was brilliant, I have only once been stirred to write in about anything in my life.
Judy, Lymm, Cheshire, England

Clive James does what he does best: "I haven't anything to say nor do I have any actual solutions to the problems, but I want to impress upon you my keen grip upon the facts as I see them and be as witty as I can manage while I'm doing it."
KB Wong, London, UK

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