Jul 3rd 2008 | JOHANNESBURG
From The Economist print edition
A Munich moment for the continent’s leaders as President Robert Mugabe is let off the hook, again
GATHERING in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on July 2nd, the leaders of the African Union (AU) had an unprecedented opportunity finally to pull the plug on the disastrous regime of Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe-or at least cast him into political outer darkness. To fortify themselves they had the world’s condemnation of his farcical re-election on June 27th, which the opposition had to withdraw from due to violence and intimidation, ringing very loudly in their ears. They had the UN Security Council saying ahead of the poll that it could not be free or fair. They had the unprecedented verdict of their own observers, who had said that the result could not “reflect the will of the people”. Even observers from a normally supine regional bloc, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), had said that the election could not be considered “legitimate”.
So what did they do? The least possible. With Mr Mugabe in their midst, the AU leaders did concede that they were “deeply concerned” about the violence. But they responded by merely asking for mediation efforts to continue between Mr Mugabe and the opposition; these are led by South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, and have got nowhere. They also called for a government of national unity, without referring to whether such a government should be led by the man who won the sham runoff vote against no opposition on June 27th, or by Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who actually won the first round of presidential voting in March. The AU’s response was embraced by Mr Mugabe, which betrays exactly how much notice he is likely to take of any of it. With no penalties on the table for non-compliance, even the gentle suggestions emanating from Sharm el-Sheikh can be happily ignored.
A few of the continent’s leaders did speak up. The vice-president of Botswana declared that the outcome of the election was not legitimate, and that Mr Mugabe and his government should therefore be excluded from AU and SADC meetings until a political solution is found. He was echoing similar words from Raila Odinga, Kenya’s prime minister, whose own victory at the polls was stolen a few months ago. A group of respected African elders, including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Kofi Annan, had asked for the AU to provide “leadership, wisdom and moral courage” by stating that the results of the runoff were illegitimate.
But these pleadings fell on deaf ears; for the AU leaders it was appeasement as usual. Many leaders on the continent are hardly paragons of democracy themselves, and so would never condemn a fellow despot. One of the first to welcome Mr Mugabe to the AU meeting was Omar Bongo, who has ruled Gabon for decades; he quickly endorsed Mr Mugabe’s election “victory”. Others are still susceptible to the appeal of Mr Mugabe’s anti-colonialist rhetoric. His spokesman will have done their cause no harm by saying that Westerners who condemned the election could “go hang a thousand times”.
Meanwhile in Zimbabwe itself, months of horrific violence meted out to opposition supporters following the first round of the election have left deep scars on the country. Mr Tsvangirai withdrew from the race a few days before the runoff because of the repression and violence, which he says have left at least 86 people dead, thousands injured and arrested, and 200,000 others displaced. With no opposition, Mr Mugabe won 85% of the vote in the runoff, but many were forced to vote for him.
The experience of Malcolm (not his real name), a rural teacher from Mashonaland East, a stronghold of Mr Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF, was fairly typical. He was also a polling officer, and explains how he was threatened the day before the runoff; like many other voters, he was forced to pretend he was illiterate on voting day so that he could be “assisted” by the police and ruling-party representatives in the voting booth. He recounts how those turned away because their names were not on the voters’ roll begged for hours to be allowed to dip their fingers into ink, fearing retaliation if they could not display the mark proving they had voted. Although it took over a month for Zimbabwe’s electoral commission to announce the results of the first round, which went against Mr Mugabe, it declared Mr Mugabe the winner of the runoff in less than two days.
The MDC’s position appears muddled. Last week Mr Tsvangirai asked for the AU and SADC to help mediate a political solution based on the results of the first round. But on July 1st, Tendai Biti, the MDC’s secretary-general who has been released on bail after being arrested upon his return to Zimbabwe, said that the runoff “totally and completely exterminated any prospects of a negotiated settlement”, and that no discussions with ZANU-PF were happening. The next day, the opposition rejected the idea of a government of national unity, but said that it remains committed to negotiations towards a transitional government, provided the violence and the persecution of MDC leaders and supporters stop, political prisoners are released, militia bases and torture camps are disbanded, and security forces remain neutral.
Mr Mugabe, for his part, has said that he is willing to talk to anyone, safe in the knowledge that he now does so from a position of strength and with nothing to fear from the appeasing Mr Mbeki. On July 3rd South Africa, China and Russia were expected to defeat proposed UN sanctions targeted at members of Mr Mugabe’s regime. Pressure on him from other sources might yet make his position more uncomfortable. For example, the German company that has supplied Zimbabwe with most of its banknotes for its hyper-inflated economy announced on July 2nd that it is ending its business with the country. In the grip of both a humanitarian catastrophe and an economic crisis, Zimbabwe is once again in limbo.