The last days may be approaching for Zimbabwe's Marxist dictator, Robert Mugabe. His 23-year-long authoritarian reign has proven to be one of the most repressive in African history. In recent years, he has resorted to seizing private land and businesses from his country's minority group, fixing elections to maintain his tyrannical rule and ruthlessly suppressing dissent.
Over the last two decades – first as Prime Minister and now as President – Mugabe has turned Zimbabwe into a one-party state under his control, imprisoning his political opposition. Most recently, the police arrested Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of Zimbabwe’s most prominent democratic opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Detained in early June 2003, Tsvangirai now stands accused of treason and faces execution if found guilty of plotting to "assassinate" Mugabe. The charges are specious and clearly designed to stifle the democratic forces that have come to represent a grave threat to the Marxist strongman's government.
This latest repressive act is but one example in a long line of dictatorial measures characterizing Mugabe’s rule. It was obvious by 2001 that Zimbabwe was an economic and political basket case. According to the Associated Press, Mugabe announced in October of that year he was “abandoning market-based economic policies and returning to a socialist-style economy.” He ordered a price freeze on basic foods and warned businesses to comply with his diktat, or risk seizure of their assets by the government. Mugabe forcefully decreed: “Let no one on this front expect mercy. . . . The state will take over any businesses that are closed…We will reorganize them with workers and at last that socialism we wanted can start again.”
Thus began a crackdown on the opposition that continues to this day, including rigged elections in 2002, the seizure of property from white farmers and landowners, and the dismantling of Zimbabwe’s market reforms.
Due to this cycle of repression, the Bush Administration formally expressed its dissatisfaction with Mugabe’s government in March 2002. At that time, President Bush barred any person who was complicit in Mugabe's misrule from entering the United States, whether as an immigrant or non-immigrant. One year later, on March 7, 2003, the Bush Administration sent a message to Congress that detailed how the Mugabe government systematically undermined that nation’s democratic institutions, employing violence and intimidation to throttle political dissent.
To add to the desperation of the besieged Zimbabwean people, the current government has engaged in a violent assault on the rule of law that has thrown the economy into chaos, devastated the nation’s agricultural economy, and triggered a potentially catastrophic food crisis.
Zimbabwe’s African neighbors, meanwhile, appear loath to act punitively in response to the brutalities of the Mugabe regime. In fact, they have rewarded his tyranny. As the Washington Times reported on Monday, African leaders actually “rewarded Mugabe with a senior position in the African Union over the weekend, a move that tacitly condones his tyrannical actions.” Mugabe’s neighbors apparently believe his repression should not disqualify him from serving as deputy chairman of the African Union, electing him during its three day summit in Mozambique last weekend. Ironically, that summit affirmed last weekend that “peace is necessary to ensure development on the continent,” according to VOA News. Furthermore, Africa News noted on July 14, “The AU constitution…supports a peer review mechanism where leaders…evaluate each other's performances in good governance and democracy.” And one of the top evaluators will be Robert Mugabe. This development would be comical if it did not portend such grave consequences for the impoverished and embattled people of Zimbabwe and indeed all of sub-Saharan Africa.
Predictably, Zimbabwean state television trumpeted that Mugabe's appointment to the African Union post proved “There is greater admiration now for Zimbabwe than there ever was.” In fact, there is growing consensus that Mugabe is a thug whose time has passed. Unfortunately, last weekend’s fateful African Union decision only served to vitiate any authority that it may have had to pressure him to relinquish control.
Unfortunately, it appears that President Bush’s options vis-à-vis Zimbabwe may be limited by his own State Department. In a revealing June 24 op-ed piece in the New York Times, Secretary of State Colin Powell himself illustrated the horrors of the Mugabe regime but fell far short of offering a workable solution to the problem. He wrote:
"If leaders on the continent do not do more to convince President Mugabe to respect the rule of law and enter into a dialogue with the political opposition, he and his cronies will drag Zimbabwe down until there is nothing left to ruin -- and Zimbabwe's implosion will continue to threaten the stability and prosperity of the region."
Secretary Powell’s recommendation would actually imperil the people of Zimbabwe and hasten the state’s “implosion” due to the fact that Zimbabwe’s neighbors seem more interested in accommodating Robert Mugabe than holding him accountable for his crimes. Moreover, the Powell approach ignores the nature of Mugabe's regime. It is unrealistic to believe that Mugabe can be “convinced” to honor “the rule of law” when he has tyrannized Zimbabwe for 23 years and launched, in the words of President Bush, a “violent assault” on the rule of law itself.
However, news reports indicate that a deal may have been struck that would permit Mugabe to step down as the leader of his party, the ZANU-PF. The Independent (London) reported on Tuesday that Mugabe “will relinquish his leadership of Zimbabwe's ruling party by December, paving the way for his exit as President and new elections by June 2004.” Provided this event takes place (the deal is said to be conditional and hence, far from a certainty), The Independent noted President Bush would deliver an aid package to Zimbabwe worth billions. This stratagem is highly problematic. It is highly unlikely that Mugabe's abdication will be either permanent or benign. As a result, billions in aid could be squandered if the dictator returns to power in the future. President Bush made the correct prescription for the crisis in Zimbabwe during a July 9, 2003, press conference with South African President Thabo Mbeki. Bush dispelled fears that U.S. troops would be overextended if sent to Liberia, remarkeing that the United States would instead aim to “re-invigorate the strategy of helping people help themselves.” Bush must now enforce this prescription by supporting the pro-democracy elements in Zimbabwe and hastening the dissolution of Robert Mugabe’s bloody regime.