Turn up the volume on 'quiet diplomacy' in Zimbabwe

Crisis: The world must add more pressure as an African regime plunges its citizens into further chaos.

November 02, 2003|By Russell Geekie | Russell Geekie,SPECIAL TO SUN

Up until President Bush's Africa trip in July, the administration was surprisingly focused on Zimbabwe, where the government's unruly seizures of white-owned commercial farms and three-year-old assault on dissents are at the heart of a political, economic and humanitarian crisis. State-sponsored violence has killed scores of Zimbabweans, thousands have been tortured, and millions face starvation.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell bluntly wrote that Zimbabwe's President Robert G. Mugabe's "time had come and gone," challenging African leaders to robustly pressure the ruling party into allowing a transitional government to lead the country to fresh elections.

Since the Africa trip, the administration has sharply toned down the rhetoric in a nod to South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki's and other African leaders' behind-the-scenes efforts to reform the obstinate Mugabe.

Critics call "quiet diplomacy" a euphemism for inaction.

The repressive regime shows few signs of letting up, recently shutting down the only independent daily newspaper, the Daily News.

Nor do economic and humanitarian crises show signs of abating in the face of drought, AIDS, a political impasse and drastically reduced output on the confiscated farms, which were the backbone of what was once one of Africa's best performing economies. GDP is expected to fall by 11 percent this year, after contracting by 27 percent between 2000 and 2002.

The inflation rate climbed to more than 450 percent in September. The unemployment rate is at least 70 percent.

Donors are handing out food to millions of Zimbabweans amid charges that the regime denies its opponents food aid. Donor pressure on the regime has proved futile. Observers worry that Zimbabwe has fallen off the administration's agenda.

But the United States can still work behind the scenes to forge consensus on how to influence the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). The lead player will have to be Zimbabwe's main trading partner, South Africa, supported by regional organizations, including the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union.

Mbeki says ZANU-PF has agreed to negotiate with the opposition, and Mugabe reportedly agreed to step down by the middle of next year.

South Africa's leverage is limited. Drastic action, such as cutting off Zimbabwe's electricity - much of which is supplied by South Africa and Mozambique - could result in Mugabe unleashing unprecedented waves of refugees; a reported 2 million Zimbabweans have fled across the border to South Africa in the past few years.

African leaders' approach is also rooted in colonial memory.

On a continent where societies greatly respect age, Mugabe at 79 is an elder statesman. He is also a liberation-era hero, who spent more than a decade in prison and led armed resistance against the white minority regime of Rhodesia, as the country was called. After becoming the leader of the new nation Zimbabwe in 1980, he was a lead supporter of South Africa's liberation struggle.

Mugabe's manipulation of the land issue plays well in countries such as South Africa and Namibia, where land redistribution remains contentious. Land has been at the heart of conflict in Zimbabwe since white settlers claimed the territory in 1890. A system akin to apartheid that gave settlers the best land continued after Rhodesia declared itself independent from Britain in 1965.

Brokered during peace negotiations, Zimbabwe's constitution contained provisions to prevent the government from seizing land or forcing farmers to sell land for a 10-year period.

In the first decade of independence, 50,000 families were resettled on more than 7 million acres.

Land redistribution slowed drastically in the 1990s as international donor support for buying land dried up amid accusations that the increasingly corrupt government parceled acquired land out to ministers and party officials.

By 1997, the glaring land ownership imbalance still existed; a million blacks farmed the worst land, while 4,500 commercial farmers, the vast majority of them white, owned 70 percent of the best land. Demand for land rose as the economy soured and a donor-imposed economic program hit disproportionately at the poor.

A new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and its civil society and trade union allies successfully campaigned for a "no" vote on a February 2000 referendum on a new constitution, which would have greatly strengthened executive power and permitted land confiscation. Coming only months before parliamentary elections, the defeat triggered ZANU-PF's violent crackdown on dissent and "fast track" land reform.

By redistributing farms owned by whites - many of whom supported the MDC - the government struck at opponents, and played to a land-hungry rural support base as well as general resentment of white privilege.

Mugabe has seized almost all of the white commercial farms.

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