Take it easy, friends urge

Zimbabwe: African leaders counsel patience, not sanctions, for President Robert Mugabe as elections approach.

January 27, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Based on the rumblings from the West last week, Zimbabwe's President Robert G. Mugabe would appear to be a world leader short on friends.

As he pushes his country further into political and economic chaos, Mugabe faces the threat of personal sanctions by the United States, Britain and the European Union, which could freeze bank accounts and restrict travel by Mugabe and the leaders of his ruling party.

But here in Southern Africa, Mugabe's closest neighbors appeared ready to give the 77-year-old president, the only leader Zimbabwe has known, a second chance - once again - to make things right.

As pressure builds to slap Mugabe with sanctions, South African President Thabo Mbeki urged the world last week to be patient with his northern neighbor. Sanctions, he argued, would do little to change Zimbabwe now.

"The main issue facing the Zimbabwe people and this region is the presidential elections. ... The region, with regard to the question of sanctions, is saying `No,'" Mbeki told reporters.

Mbeki's reluctance to confront Mugabe is the hallmark of his so-called "quiet diplomacy" with Zimbabwe, a strategy embraced by the Southern African region that encourages engagement with Mugabe rather than public condemnation of his increasingly lawless and violent rule.

After 22 years, Mugabe is struggling to stay in power as he faces the first serious threat to his political career. He has mounted a campaign of intimidation against his opponents, tossing opposition party members in jail and taking whatever steps necessary to maintain his grip on power. Dozens of people have died during political violence in the past two years.

But while human rights groups and Western governments have roundly condemned the unraveling of democracy in Zimbabwe, Mugabe's neighbors remain, for the most part, silent. The behind-the-scenes pressure brought by African leaders against Mugabe has been ineffective. Since the violence before parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe 18 months ago, conditions in Zimbabwe have only worsened.

Despite assurances that he would obey the rule of law, Mugabe has pursued a reckless land reform program, seizing land from white farmers without compensation. This month, he pressured his ruling party to pass a package of repressive laws to ban election observers and to hobble the opposition party. Another bill under consideration this week would muzzle the media and ban foreign journalists from covering the elections.

"Mugabe seems to have gone bonkers in a big way," Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu, one of the most powerful voices of the anti-apartheid movement, said in a interview with a Johannesburg newspaper this month. "Certainly when you disregard the rule of law, when you do not allow space for dissent and when you use violence to silence your critics and want to have only one political group have the upper hand with all the others not being allowed a say, then I think you are on a slippery slope towards a dictatorship with the trimmings of a multiparty democracy."

With the March 9-10 presidential election only weeks away, human rights groups, politicians and political watchdog organizations are demanding that Southern Africa's leaders drop their soft approach on Mugabe.

"Quiet diplomacy should not become silent acquiescence to continuing gross human rights violations in Zimbabwe," said Amnesty International.

Zimbabwe's mounting crisis comes at a crucial moment in African history. Mbeki has spent much of his first term traveling the world to promote his vision of the African Renaissance, a democratic era free of the dictatorships that have ravaged the continent since the end of colonial rule.

African presidents, including Mbeki, Nigeria's President Olesegun Obasanjo and Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade, have also embraced the New Partnership for African Development, an ambitious agenda that promotes a new relationship between Africa and the world to bring peace, stability and economic prosperity to the continent. At the plan's core is the promise that Africa would take the lead in finding solutions to its own problems.

So why, many critics ask, is Africa so reluctant to get tough with Zimbabwe?

"It's a contradiction. Africa is committed to solving its own problems. But here is an African problem but very little is being done to solve it," says Siphamamdla Zondi, a researcher at the Africa Institute of South Africa in Pretoria.

Southern African leaders defend their cautious approach as the only option to save Zimbabwe. If they push Mugabe, slap him with sanctions, and isolate him, they run the risk of driving the country to complete economic and political collapse.

Mbeki has also warned of sparking a massive refugee crisis. Already about 500 people per day are jumping the Zimbabwe border into South Africa. If civil unrest worsens, the number of border jumpers would increase by thousands, most heading to South Africa and Botswana.

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