Commentary

Mugabe’s Apologists

Robert Mugabe’s participation in the European Union-Africa summit in Lisbon over the weekend was a triumph of Zimbabwean diplomacy. Both African and EU leaders must share the blame for this farce. Zimbabwe’s foreign ministry managed to portray the octogenarian dictator, who has presided over widespread violations of human rights and an astonishing economic collapse, as the victim of a Western conspiracy.

The once charming town of Victoria Falls, which used to hum with travelers from around the globe, is now derelict and largely empty of tourists. About half of the shops in town are either empty or closed altogether. The fear among ordinary Zimbabweans is palpable. Few people in this police state will talk about politics, and no one does so without looking nervously for the dreaded agents of Mr. Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organization.

The response of the African leaders to this man-made catastrophe has been to close ranks around Zimbabwe’s leader. Some have publicly agreed with Mr. Mugabe’s claim that his country’s economic woes are due to (targeted) Anglo-American sanctions, rather than the government-sponsored destruction of Zimbabwean commercial agriculture. Of course, supporting Mr. Mugabe does not further the cause of African brotherhood; most of the victims of his disastrous policies are black Zimbabweans.

Then there is the shambolic negotiation between Mr. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai. The talks, which are supposed to pave the way for free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections in March 2008, take place under the auspices of South African President Thabo Mbeki. Zimbabwe is economically dependent on South Africa, so Mr. Mbeki is in a position to force change or end Mr. Mugabe’s reign overnight. Unfortunately, Mr. Mbeki has done more than any other African leader to help Mr. Mugabe hang onto power. It was Mr. Mbeki whose back-room meddling split the MDC and whose “election observers” declared two stolen elections in Zimbabwe as free and fair.

Mr. Mbeki claims that the negotiations between ZANU-PF and the MDC have made much progress. He hopes to have them successfully concluded by this Saturday, but that is unlikely to happen. The MDC representatives I met two weeks ago in Johannesburg, though, do not believe that Mr. Mugabe will allow a free and fair election. The U.S. State Department echoes this pessimism, saying the human-rights situation in Zimbabwe is “becoming worse every day.” Washington last week imposed financial and travel sanctions on 38 Mugabe cronies.

The response of the African leaders to this man-made catastrophe has been to close ranks around Zimbabwe’s leader.”

Sadly, EU officials succumbed to the blackmail of African leaders who threatened to boycott the Lisbon meeting unless Mr. Mugabe was invited as well. The EU officials should have called their bluff: From trade to foreign aid, Africa depends on Europe far more than Europe needs Africa. Refusing to budge would have forced African leaders to make a very public choice between going to Lisbon in order to negotiate pressing issues, such as further opening Europe’s markets to African goods, and self-defeating “gesture” politics by staying away in solidarity with a tyrant. In the event, the trade talks broke down anyway. Some African leaders felt that gradual — in some cases, decades-long — opening of African markets to EU goods in exchange for immediate duty-free access of African goods to the EU was too high a price to pay. They chose instead to walk away with nothing.

In fairness, some EU leaders broke ranks over Mr. Mugabe’s presence in Portugal. The British and Czech prime ministers didn’t attend the summit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that “the current state of Zimbabwe damages the image of the new Africa.” Unfortunately, African leaders don’t seem particularly worried. Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade noted that “Zimbabwe is not in the process of collapsing, nor is Mugabe in the process of collapsing.” He continued: “Who can say that human rights are being violated more in Zimbabwe than in other African countries? No one can say that.”

Still, the EU leadership cracked and overturned their travel ban on Mr. Mugabe, who was only too happy to confront in person what he called his “irrational” and “stupid” critics. Africa’s leaders have, once again, successfully exploited Europe’s guilt over its colonial past. Europe’s leaders have, once again, failed to hold African rulers up to universal standards of human rights.

Marian Tupy is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, and author of the April 2007 study “Troubling Signs for South African Democracy under the ANC.”