At long last, African nations have begun to pressure Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe to end his reign of terror. The leaders of Botswana, Burundi, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia have condemned his systematic use of violence to retain power. Nelson Mandela himself has denounced what he called “a tragic failure of leadership.” Yet the increasingly deluded Mugabe — who was sworn in again as president on June 29 after fraudulently winning a presidential run-off — sees himself as a kind of emperor, claiming that “only God” can remove him from power. He responded to his neighbors’ criticism of his regime in chilling but illuminating fashion: “Some African countries have done worse things,” he told Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald, ‘I would like some African leaders who are making these statements to point at me and we would see if those fingers would be cleaner than mine.”
Mugabe’s digital-era update of “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” effectively calls Africa’s bluff.
After all, skeptics have long called the Africa Union — previously, the Organisation for African Unity — the “Dictator’s Club
.” The joke goes that the only difference between the old OAU and the new AU is the “O” — the dictators are all the same. Although some AU member states are democracies these days — far more than in the past — many are democracies in name only, with leaders employing repressive violence to remain in power for decades. Reasonable estimates differ, but somewhere between 30 and 53 African countries are dictatorships. Mugabe, then, is not alone.
Educated Africans with whom I’ve spoken don’t credit Mugabe’s claim that white foreigners are concerned about Zimbabwe only because they want to recolonize it — but most do believe we’re only interested in the country because of displaced white farmers. They say “Why aren’t you dealing with Bashir in Sudan, Zenawi in Ethiopia, Dos Santos in Angola . . . ” to name but a few. But overlooking failures in other African nations does not make Zimbabwe a success.
The shared post-colonial history of tolerating one-party rule in so many African nations suggests that we should expect little action from the AU’s senior leadership — indeed, Mugabe was guardedly welcomed at the ongoing AU conference in Egypt. Action will be left up to new leaders of democracies in Zimbabwe’s back yard. Zambia’s President Levy Mwanawasa has made increasingly strong statements against the regime and tried to coordinate action among southern African states. And according to the Sunday Times of London, “Officials from Tanzania and Botswana have said they would be prepared to send in troops.” And it is increasingly clear that military action is required to oust Mugabe and restore democracy.
After Mugabe won the rigged 2005 election, I asked various sources in the U.S. and U.K. governments about the possibility of military intervention in Zimbabwe. The widespread consensus saw intervention as a political non-starter. “We would only support a military action if countries in the region decided to act” one expert told me. The support from one or more nations in the region would be required as a matter of military logistics, as well.
Fast forward three years and local political opposition to military intervention is changing. Last week, the U.N. Security Council (including permanent members Russia and China and current member South Africa) criticized the Mugabe regime for the first time. UN action is unlikely, but it may be that China and Russia might not openly object to local action.