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In Case Of Emergency: Break Mugabe

Pace Jamie’s Zimbabwe blogging: I am worried. The latest, extraordinarily distressing news from the region:

The leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition party has sought refuge in the Dutch Embassy in the capital, Harare, the Dutch government said Monday, while the police raided the party’s headquarters and detained more than 40 people, mostly women, children and people injured in the recent political violence.

The latest developments came a day after the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, withdrew from a presidential run-off, scheduled for June 27, saying he could neither participate in “this violent, illegitimate sham of an election process,” nor ask his voters to risk their lives in the face of threats from forces backing President Robert Mugabe.

Mr. Tsvangirai told a news conference in Harare on Sunday that his party was facing a war rather than an election “and we will not be part of that war.”

I’m of two minds about Tsvangirai’s decision to give in to Mugabe’s strongarming (and it’s difficult to use such an idiom when what I mean is the wholesale kidnapping, slaughter and torture of dissenters). On the one hand, the spate of state terrorism, which has mounted steadily since the March 29 vote that Mugabe lost, has long since surpassed the level of threat. It is a reality, and Tsvangirai is perfectly right that his supporters bear the risk of losing their lives.

But at what cost does a failed state like Zimbabwe capitulate? At what cost do their leaders validate and sanction fear—the means-tested lifeblood of dictatorship? Tsvangirai’s cave seems to me almost disrespectful to the thousands that have already been sacrificed to the turmoil that has seized Zimbabwe and diffused throughout southern Africa. Tsvangirai made this point himself a month ago, saying:  "I was in the hospital today, people with scars, wounds, all saying: 'President, we will finish him off, don't let us down'.“ The question for him in the days ahead: Well?

And no matter who is treating them as such, these political crises are not fundamentally intractable. In the last five years, we’ve seen fraught electoral moments in Togo, Nigeria, Kenya and now Zimbabwe. Some have gone unmediated; others were successfully resolved with African Union diplomatic assistance. Most importantly, these transitional crises are the best and often only chances to make a quantum leap toward better governance in regions where it is sorely needed.

The pattern of progress had a chance in Zimbabwe. Smart leaders in Botswana and Zambia and Tanzania have denounced the charade. Levy Mwanawasa, head of the Southern African Development Community, has floated the idea of postponing the election until some kind of protective force can be instated and a free and fair result is more probable. Past and present African leaders and the rest of the SADC have met today in search of a diplomatic solution; and the International Crisis Group has laid out the other credible options for resolution. South Africa’s ruling ANC party has now spoken out against Mugabe, and their President, a groveling supporter of the despot.

But it’s all backward: The tone was set back in April, when Mugabe was allowed to suppress results for three weeks and to succeed in pushing a revote. Imagine: The UN Security Council has—months after the disputed contest and subsequent terrorism—taken its first “action,” a one-page statement saying how wrong it would be to hold the vote scheduled for this Friday. Now Kenyan leader Raila Odinga (whose own electoral mishap pales in comparison) warns of a repeat of the 100 days of Rwandan horror in 1994--no matter what.

Everyone is appalled, of course—just appalled. But astonishingly (and putting Hillary Clinton’s final weeks of primary campaigning into perspective), there’s an ongoing debate about “what Mugabe wants.” Sure, he craves power, and the promotion of his racist worldview. But his recent rampage must be attributed in part to the specter of western-style prosecution for crimes against humanity. Certainly he is not interested in Zimbabwe's well-being. But he is holding a nation hostage out of fear—and even with arms, he is weak. His authority is running on fumes. British diplomat Mark Malloch Brown said of the election: "He obviously wants to steal it, but he is going to have to do it so visibly and ostentatiously and outrageously I think the world will, I hope, not let him get away with it.”

Shall they? Paul Wolfowitz is pretending that politesse and debt forgiveness will get the job done. Tsvangirai has asked for UN guns. I support the latter thinking. TNR has editorialized about the fallout from Iraq War policy and the sidelining of American power in theaters other than the middle east. The example was Burma, and the point was that—ten years ago, or absent Iraq—taking on the junta in conjunction with allies would have at least been on the table. Deposing Mugabe would have been, too.

--Dayo Olopade

Here’s a timeline of what’s going on there. Here and here are largely eyewitness dispatches. Here is AllAfrica's news roundup. Here is IRIN's.

(Photo: A campaign poster for opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his party the Movement for Democratic Change is attached to a fence June 22, 2008 in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Courtey Getty Images.)