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Tightening the Grip on Mugabe By: Kathy Shaidle
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 12, 2008


The 84-year-old Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since the country achieved independence from Britain in 1980. In that time, Zimbabwe has gone from one of Africa’s most admired and successful nations to a failed state of enormous proportions. Now, with a humanitarian crisis raging inside the country, pressure from Africa and abroad is mounting for Mugabe to end his tyrannical reign and spare his country from further misery.

Next Monday, the U.N. Security Council will meet to discuss the rapidly deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made the announcement earlier this week, making him the latest world leader to call for action against Mugabe.

African leaders, too, are turning against him. In the past, public condemnation of Mugabe was rarely voiced on the continent. As one of Africa’s last remaining post-colonial liberation figures, Mugabe was considered beyond criticism. That is no longer the case. “Mugabe “has destroyed a wonderful country,” said South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a December 8 television interview. “A country that used to be a bread basket, it has now become a basket case.” Tutu went so far as to say that the African Union or the Southern African Development Community had the power to remove Mugabe, and could do so by force if necessary.

Coming from Tutu and other African leaders, such as Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, as well as President Bush and Prime Minister Brown, such talk has put Mugabe on the defensive. On December 11, he abruptly declared, against all evidence to the contrary, that the country’s raging cholera epidemic was “over,” and accused the United States, France, and the United Kingdom of using cholera as an excuse to invade Zimbabwe and overthrow his already unstable coalition government. (Mugabe is part of a shaky power-sharing deal with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.)

International pressure on Mugabe is long overdue. Zimbabwe’s inflation rate is an unfathomable 231 million percent, while unemployment is above 80 percent. Everyone from human-rights activists to opposition-party leaders are routinely abducted and murdered. Most pressingly, a cholera epidemic is ravaging the country. The latest World Health Organization report find 14,ooo cases of cholera infection, and some 800 dead, though some critics call those numbers far too low; meanwhile, millions of sick and impoverished Zimbabwean refugees are flooding into neighboring countries. The UN estimates that this particular outbreak will ultimately kill one in ten Zimbabweans.

Mugabe’s response to the cholera epidemic may have worsened the crisis. Zimbabwe has sent mixed signals about the epidemic all along, alternately calling for millions of dollars in international aid, and then denying visas to a French medical team. According to one diplomat, the Zimbabwean embassy in Paris declared that “Zimbabwe doesn't need a foreign technical team to fight cholera.” “This shows the audacity of a regime that is desperate to stay in power, no matter what the cost,” said Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International. “The only way out of this problem is through unified pressure from outside, in particular of African leaders.”

To some extent, this is happening. In response to the cholera crisis, the European Union is considering enacting additional sanctions against the Mugabe government. But skeptics note that the EU sanctions that have been in effect since 2002 have had little impact on the regime’s behavior.

The African response, moreover, still leaves much to be desired. Despite the newfound willingness of some African leaders to criticize Mugabe, some African nations are hurriedly distancing themselves from Tutu and Odinga’s calls for Mugabe’s resignation. Dr. Roger Bate, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is bluntly pessimistic that other African nations will follow through on their calls for Mugabe’s overthrow. There is “no chance at all,” says Bate, pointing out that many of Mugabe’s critics have backtracked since last week’s statements, including South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. This is unfortunate, because if the African Union or South Africa and other neighboring states did force Mugabe out that “could have a positive effect, driving similar despotic leaders to seek elections and leave power peacefully.”

By contrast, foreign intervention to oust Mugabe could have a destabilizing effect. Bate points out that any military intervention on the part of the UN, especially one that involves American or British troops, could “encourage a backlash against democracy.” Bate speculates that at some stage during such an incursion, members of the Zimbabwean army would back a breakaway faction of Mugabe’s party, who would then “form some kind of power share government in exchange for aid from the West or China.”

That does not mean that the international community should temper its criticism of Mugabe. Bate points out that neither President-elect Obama nor his future Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and his likely UN ambassador Susan Rice have said anything about Zimbabwe since June. Bate believes that Washington needs to publicly support the country’s opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, perhaps even using foreign aid as leverage. He hopes that the Obama administration will not “engage in South African-style quiet diplomacy, which basically means it’s too difficult to do anything so they ignore the issue.”

The growing pressure on Mugabe – and particularly the condemnation of African leaders – is a welcome development. But there is little evidence so far that the international community will break the dictator’s ruinous stranglehold on Zimbabwe and deliver the country from its decades-long nightmare.


Kathy Shaidle blogs at FiveFeetOfFury.com. Her new book exposing abuses by Canada’s Human Rights Commissions, The Tyranny of Nice, includes an introduction by Mark Steyn.


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