The cholera outbreak that has killed some 1,600 people and infected thousands of others has renewed the world's attention on Zimbabwe and its tyrannous ruler Robert Mugabe.
Mr. Mugabe's economic policies and repression are responsible for widespread poverty, sickness and violence that have gripped Zimbabwe, and while his rule appears to be coming to an end, Zimbabwe's story provides a somber lesson for the rest of the world. For too long, world leaders and international institutions have temporized with African dictators and accepted flawed elections as sources of incumbents' legitimacy.
In the March 2008 poll, despite what was widely seen as a flawed electoral process, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change gained a majority of the parliamentary seats in Zimbabwe. Mr. Mugabe refused to relinquish power, however.
The African Union and the Southern African Development Community did not call for him to go. Instead, they pushed for a power-sharing compromise between Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF and the MDC. Mr. Mugabe was to stay on as president and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was to become the new prime minister. The Cabinet seats were to be shared on an equitable basis.
However, even those generous terms were not enough for Mr. Mugabe, who demanded that the MDC relinquish its claim for sole control of the powerful Home Affairs Ministry, which supervises Zimbabwe's police force and electoral machinery. Mr. Tsvangirai has rightly rejected this new demand. Over the years, the highly politicized police force has emerged as Mr. Mugabe's favorite tool against opponents, while Mr. Mugabe's control over the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has enabled him to rig successive elections.
Unfortunately, Africa's democratic awakening, which has seen the demise of many one-party dictatorships and military regimes since 1990, is, in many ways, only skin deep. In many countries, elections are either rigged in favor of the incumbents or ignored if their outcomes are unfavorable to the ruling regimes.
Take Kenya's presidential elections in December 2007. Prior to the vote, the opposition candidate Raila Odinga led the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, in all opinion polls. Some had him 15 to 19 percentage points ahead. With half of the 210 constituencies reporting, Mr. Odinga had a commanding lead. The Electoral Commission of Kenya abruptly stopped the count. When the counting resumed, Mr. Kibaki surged past Mr.Odinga. An hour later he was sworn in to his second term at a hastily arranged State House ceremony.
According to the chief European Union monitor Alexander Lambsdorff, the tallying process "lacked credibility." In the ensuing violence, as enraged Kenyans took to the streets 1,000 people died and 600,000 were displaced.
In a compromise through a combined diplomatic effort of Kofi Annan, Condoleezza Rice and others, a new position of the prime minister was created for Mr. Odinga, leaving Mr. Kibaki as president. Mr. Kibaki and his henchmen subverted democracy, but Western countries, grateful for an end to violence, quickly resumed their aid payments to Kenya.
Umaru Yar'Adua, the chosen successor of Olusegun Obasanjo, won the Nigerian presidency in an election marred by fraud. Mr. Obasanjo himself came to power in a poll where, according to the EU observers, the "minimum standards for democratic elections [had] not been met." After losing the 2005 election, Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia, ordered his troops to shoot anti-government protesters in Addis Ababa, killing 200. Yet, the West rewarded Nigeria with debt forgiveness and Ethiopia with large amounts of foreign aid.
Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe has so far benefited from an analogous situation. He unleashed a wave of violence after losing the first round of presidential elections in March 2008 to Mr. Tsvangirai. Amnesty International estimates 180 people were killed and 9,000 injured, forcing Mr. Tsvangirai out of the subsequent runoff, and ensuring that Mr. Mugabe was installed in his sixth term as president of Zimbabwe.
It is perhaps understandable that many of Mr. Mugabe's fellow African leaders who came to power in similarly nefarious ways refrained from criticizing him and called for a power-sharing compromise instead. Unfortunately that does not explain why the South African government, which has the democratic credentials to speak out and act, has cosseted Mr. Mugabe behind the veil of so-called "quiet diplomacy."
True democracy is about more than periodic elections. It is about freedom to hold and promote different opinions unmolested by the agents of the state. It is about vibrant civil society, free media and independent courts. It is about having every vote counted in a transparent and credible way. It is about a government resigning when the voters say so. Unfortunately, in many parts of Africa, we seem to be witnessing not a triumph of true democracy, but the triumph of incumbentocracy.