Why Mugabe still rules

2008-08-20 00:00

While everyone is anxious to see the Zimbabwe negotiations succeed in bringing relief to the long-suffering people of that country, it is nonetheless galling that the process should be taking place at all. For it is sending a terrible message to tyrants everywhere.

It is telling them that when you face defeat in an election the thing to do is to launch mayhem in your country, beating and butchering and bludgeoning your own people until horrified peacekeepers come hurrying to the scene to stop the carnage and you can then negotiate an ongoing role for yourself in the power structure.

It is a form of blackmail, the moral equivalent of the hostage-taker who threatens to go on shooting his hostages unless his demands are met.

The sane world always faces a dilemma in such situations. To yield to the hostage-taker’s demands is to encourage its replication, and so there has been a growing reluctance to do so and the painful decision has been taken to leave hostages to their fate. But when whole communities are involved it is a quantitatively different matter.

Still, I believe the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) could be doing better in the case of hostage-taker Robert Mugabe. As this column has noted repeatedly for more than a year, those two bodies are committed by their own charters not to recognise any regime that takes power by unconstitutional means. So they should have warned Mugabe in advance that if he rigged this year’s election again, as he did in 2002 and 2005, they would not recognise his government. It would be an illegitimate regime and Zimbabwe would be suspended from both bodies and isolated.

That, I believe, would have stopped him. Mugabe may thumb his nose at Britain and the United States, but he would not dare do so to the rest of Africa.

Indeed SADC should be acting in that way right now. Instead of trying to negotiate a power-sharing deal, they should be telling Mugabe bluntly and collectively that he lost the March 29 election, that he extended the run-off illegally, that his campaign of violence and intimidation was unacceptable and that he cannot therefore be recognised as head of the Zimbabwe government.

They should tell him that he must step down, and that if he does not SADC will withdraw all support from him and his government. He will be isolated in his own continent.

Sadly, President Thabo Mbeki, as SADC’s appointed negotiator, has not had the strength of character to do that. He is in awe of Mugabe’s reputation as a liberation icon, and perhaps in fear of being denounced as a tool of the West, which is Mugabe’s stock-in-trade response to his African critics.

And so the timidity has become pervasive. Nobody is prepared to stand up to the old tyrant, except poor Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia who died yesterday in a Paris hospital after suffering a stroke at a previous SADC summit but still managed to send a message of admonition to the leaders in

Sandton, and Botswana’s gutsy new president, Ian Khama, who boycotted the meeting in protest against Mugabe’s presence there as Zimbabwe’s unelected president.

Even some of our media and professorial analysts seem stricken by obtuseness. The other day I heard an SABC commentator say, as the SADC leaders headed for Sandton, that “the ball is now in [Morgan] Tsvangirai’s court”.

How preposterous. Here is a man who has been robbed of an election victory, had his organisation smashed and his supporters beaten, tortured and killed, being told the onus is on him to make concessions so that peace can be restored.

The point is that Mugabe’s insistence that he be the head of the so-called “power-sharing” government, with the power to appoint — and thus also to dismiss — members of that government, including Tsvangirai as prime minister, is so obviously unacceptable to Tsvangirai that I cannot understand why it was not instantly dismissed as a negotiating position.

Tsvangirai is not a fool. He and everybody else in southern Africa knows how Mugabe swallowed up Joshua Nkomo and his Zapu party without a trace in what was purported to be a power-sharing deal in the eighties. It’s as plain as a pikestaff that this is what Mugabe is trying to do with Tsvangirai now — and that Tsvangirai would be crazy to fall for it.

Yet we keep getting reports saying there is only one obstacle remaining in the negotiations — even though that obstacle is the size of Mount Everest.

The problem with SADC is that too many of its leaders have too much in common with Mugabe. They are imbued with the notion that their parties of liberation have a historic right to rule indefinitely; that as “vanguard parties” only they have the wisdom and ideological insight to chart the course of the unending “national democratic revolution”. They form a kind of freemasonry that closes ranks with fellow members of that self-righteous but shrinking club.

One can imagine, for example, that José Eduardo dos Santos, who has been the president of Angola for 29 years, feels somewhat reluctant to tell Mugabe that after 28 years it is past time for him to go.

The AU, too, has some less than enthusiastic champions of free and fair elections. There is Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak who has ruled for 27 years, who habitually locks up his opposition at election time and appears now to be preparing to hand over to his son Gamal. And Muammar Gadaffi who has held power in Libya for 39 years and counting.

What needs to happen is for the SADC leaders to cast off their craven obsession with the egotistical needs of one stubborn old man and focus instead on the increasingly desperate needs of the Zimbabwean people.

Zimbabwe’s economy is disintegrating. The currency is devaluing at the rate of 1 000% a week. Inflation is reckoned to be in the vicinity of 50-million percent. Which means the money is worthless. It can’t buy anything, and in any case there is nothing in the shops to buy. The maize crop this year is one-third of what is needed to feed the nation with its most basic staple.

The people are facing starvation. A human catastrophe is looming. Africa itself does not have the resources to save the 10 million or so people still left in Zimbabwe. Only the Western donor countries can do that. They have pledged $4 billion over two years, which is about half Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product, to kick-start a recovery.

But the donor countries won’t give the aid if Mugabe remains head of the government. Which is understandable, because he squandered the wealth of what was once a prosperous country and would surely do so again to keep his cronies happy while the ordinary people continue to suffer in penury.

In any case, how can any donor country justify asking its taxpayers to bail out a tyrant and subsidise an illegitimate regime?

No, the onus is on the SADC leaders to do the right thing. They must tell Mugabe to go, now, so that the people of Zimbabwe can start living again.

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