African leaders look other way while Zimbabwe comes undone

July 11, 2005|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -God bless Bono. He has done more to put Africa back on the map than all the usual advocates - African heads of state, the Congressional Black Caucus and international aid organizations - combined. The Irish pop star did much of the heavy lifting that catapulted HIV/AIDS relief and debt forgiveness to the top of the Group of Eight's agenda in Scotland.

But there's one African disaster that even Bono can't fix: the ruined nation of Zimbabwe. It's an entirely man-made catastrophe, the legacy of one abusive, egomaniacal tyrant, president-for-life Robert Mugabe. And the nation is now so far gone it's not clear that it can be salvaged.

Mr. Mugabe is conducting a relocation campaign in which his storm troopers forcibly remove the desperately poor from urban shantytowns back to rural areas, where they face nothing but hunger. Among other outrages, Dominican nuns were forced to tear down a day-care center in a shanty outside Harare, the capital. Charitable groups estimate that as many as 1 million people will be uprooted before Mr. Mugabe is done.

While the 81-year-old dictator claims that he is merely cleaning up diseased and crime-infested slums, the vast majority of the shantytown inhabitants just happen to support his political opponents. The relocation campaign is eerily reminiscent of the forcible removal of black South Africans to separate "homelands" during apartheid.

Indeed, if Mr. Mugabe were a white colonial oppressor, black African heads of state would be demanding international intervention, and American civil rights activists would be burning him in effigy. Instead, Mr. Mugabe's most ardent defenders are African heads of state. When G-8 leaders - joined by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a native of Ghana - asked African leaders to condemn Mr. Mugabe's relocations, they refused.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, chairman of the African Union, said he would "not be part" of any public condemnation, according to the Financial Times. And a spokesman for South African President Thabo Mbeki told The New York Times he is "really irritated by this kgokgo approach." (Kgokgo is a Sotho word that implies scaring a child into submission, the Times explains.) Spokesman Bheki Khumalo said, "South Africa refuses to accept the notion that because suddenly we're going to a G-8 summit, we must ... look good and appease the G-8 leaders."

Unemployment nearing 80 percent. Triple-digit inflation. Gasoline shortages. Agricultural and industrial sectors in collapse. What a tragedy. What an entirely preventable waste.

In 1983, I spent two months in Zimbabwe, then a relatively prosperous and mostly stable country excited about the prospects of independence. After a decades-long guerrilla war against an oppressive all-white government, Zimbabwe's rebels had won a peace settlement that guaranteed black rule.

With a small but committed black middle class and a group of white businessmen and farmers comfortable with the new order, Zimbabwe was primed to become a leader of Africa. Mr. Mugabe even encouraged those white farmers and entrepreneurs to stay; the country needed them, he said.

That didn't last long. By the end of his first decade in power, Mr. Mugabe, a Shona, had presided over the slaughter of an estimated 20,000 ethnic Ndebeles, whom he characterized as armed insurrectionists. Slowly but surely, he began using the same tools the racist white government had used to crack down on dissent - imprisoning critics, shutting down newspapers, intimidating judges. He rigged elections.

As his nation foundered and opposition increased, Mr. Mugabe became more tyrannical. About five years ago, he started blaming white farmers for the nation's problems and began seizing their land for his supporters. When the collapse of those major farming enterprises combined with a drought, widespread hunger followed.

Not that Mr. Mbeki or Mr. Obasanjo seems to care. Apparently, the cruel oppression of black Africans is acceptable when black rulers do the oppressing.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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