Time for Africa to Stand up to Mugabe

April 1, 2005 • Commentary

Today the people of Zimbabwe will go to the polls. Like on previous occasions, the election is likely to be neither free nor fair. Over the past five years, Robert Mugabe’s despotic regime strengthened its hold over the country and emaciated the opposition. Seeing the deterioration in Zimbabwe, the Bush administration took the principled stand and labeled Zimbabwe as one of the world’s “outposts of tyranny.” The question is: Can African leaders do the same?

It has been five years since Zimbabwe embarked on a road to lawlessness and economic disaster. Having stolen the 2000 parliamentary election and the 2002 presidential poll, Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party proceeded to stack the courts with government sympathisers, drastically curtail freedom of expression and assembly, and silence independent media and non‐​governmental organizations. Members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change have been persecuted and, in some cases, murdered. Countless Zimbabweans have been jailed, raped, and tortured by Mugabe’s secret police and youth militias, but the culprits are never brought to justice.

Wrongheaded expropriation of commercial farmers, which accompanied the breakdown of the rule of law, sent the economy into tailspin. Today, Zimbabwe has the dubious honor of being the fastest shrinking economy in the world. A few well‐​known statistics provide an insight into life in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

  • Between 1999 and 2003, the economy contracted by over 30 percent.
  • Unemployment stood at 80 percent of the economically active population in 2004.
  • Per capita income was lower in 2004 than in 1980 — the year Mugabe came to power.
  • Life expectancy fell from 56 years in 1985 to 33 years in 2003.
  • After rising to 500 percent in 2004, triple digit inflation continued in 2005.
  • Foreign direct investment and tourism plummeted.
  • In January 2005, over half of Zimbabwe’s population needed emergency food aid.
  • Out of a population of 12 million, between 3 and 4 million Zimbabweans emigrated abroad.

Unfortunately, the international community is divided over the way to deal with Zimbabwe. The United Nations, which has ignored the deteriorating conditions in Zimbabwe, has invited Mugabe to address the 59th session of the UN General Assembly. In an act of astonishing cynicism, Zimbabwe was re‐​elected to the UN Commission of Human Rights in 2005. There the Zimbabwean delegation will join such ardent supporters of good governance as China, Cuba, Togo, Swaziland, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia.

The African Union took three years to come up with a report critical of Mugabe’s handling of the March 2002 presidential poll, but called for no punitive measures. The Southern African Development Community (SADC), an inter‐​governmental organization ostensibly devoted to better governance in Southern Africa, has been timid at best. President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, whose word carries the greatest weight in that organization, recently said that he could see no reason to think that “anybody in Zimbabwe will act in a way that will militate against elections being free and fair.” That statement flies in the face of all the available evidence as well as previous criticisms of the Zimbabwean government by the former South African President Nelson Mandela and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

On the other hand, the U.S. government and the members of the European Union stood together in imposing “smart sanctions” on Mugabe and his cronies. Similarly, the British government persisted in criticizing Mugabe’s record on human rights, which forced Zimbabwe’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 2003. But travel bans, seizures of foreign assets, and threats to membership of international organizations are seldom enough to put an end to despotism.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope. When Togo’s dictator of 38 years, Gnassingbe Eyadema, died earlier this year, the military ignored the Togolose constitution and appointed his son, Faure, to the presidency. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) took the lead in opposing that coup d’etat and forced the military to accept early democratic elections.

Where West Africa has shown the way, Southern Africa would be wise to follow. Member states of SADC need to understand that their tacit condoning of Mugabe’s dictatorship reflects badly on them. It makes a parody out of Thabo Mbeki’s grand design for Africa — the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). NEPAD promises to improve Africa’s record on human rights and accountability in exchange for more aid and investment. Time has come for African leaders to make good on their promises.

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