Zimbabwe's fateful hour

Election: Whether President Mugabe stays or goes, country's troubles will not be over.

March 09, 2002

ZIMBABWE'S "First Chimurenga" was its unsuccessful attempt in the 1850s to repel British colonists. The second liberation struggle brought Robert Mugabe to power in 1980. The president now calls this weekend's presidential election the "Third Chimurenga" - a crucial test of self-determination.

This it is.

But at stake this time is Zimbabwe's future as a stable country of laws and fair processes.

Already, President Mugabe, 78, has let it be known he will reject the voters' verdict if he is not re-elected. The army, too, has announced it will recognize no other winner.

Mr. Mugabe has done everything in his power to secure a favorable outcome. Last-minute rules empower polling officials to reject registered voters at will, and the final tally will be done by government employees instead of independent counters.

Nevertheless, Mr. Mugabe is so worried he has pledged to prosecute his challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai, after the election. By implication, that means a witch hunt against all opposition supporters.

So, if Mr. Mugabe wins and launches his promised retaliation, the major cities of Harare and Bulawayo may erupt in fights between opposition supporters and government henchmen.

Should Mr. Tsvangirai win, the outcome is not likely to be any more peaceful. In that case, Mugabe diehards would want to prevent him from taking office.

Mr. Mugabe's rule has destroyed much of Zimbabwe's once-impressive economy. The country is starving, and government-sanctioned lawlessness is rampant. It's time for change.

However, if the election breeds more violence and produces mass flight from Zimbabwe, neighboring South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana may be overrun with refugees. They are ill-prepared to deal with such an influx.

Most African countries revere Mr. Mugabe, the freedom fighter. That's why they have hesitated to criticize his increasingly erratic rule, even though he has steadily moved toward despotism.

This shortsightedness may catch up with them, though. The last thing Africa and Zimbabwe need is another Idi Amin, a dictator who is perfectly willing to sacrifice his country in order to retain power.

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