April 24, 2008 | Op-ed

Enabling Mugabe to Cling On

Just four weeks ago, as I reported at the time, things seemed to be getting better for the 12.3 million Zimbabweans who had endured not only the uninterrupted and increasingly more despotic rule of Mugabe and his Zimbabwe Africa National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), but also borne the consequences of its criminal incompetence in such things as an annual inflation rate in excess of 100,000 percent (the actual figure is unknown since the government’s own statistical office gave up making calculations after that point for lack of a sufficient quantity of goods in shops for it to use as a measure of consumer prices). Despite intense pressure from the government not-too-subtle campaign of intimidation, the majority of the 2.4 million Zimbabweans who went to the polls on March 29 cast their ballots for against the ruling party, awarding Tsvangirai’s MDC (along with a splinter faction headed by Arthur Mutambara) a majority in the House of Assembly and half of the seats in the Senate. In a direct repudiation of the “able father” Tsvangirai won close to 50 percent of the vote for the presidency, although accounts – which come exclusively from a tabulation by the MDC of results posted outside polling places and a national sampling the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), a coalition of 38 civil society organizations – differ on whether or not he won the absolute majority necessary to avoid a run-off. No one knows for sure because the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) has yet to release any presidential results.

So, instead of the change they had hoped for, Zimbabweans have been treated to more of the same by “Comrade Bob” and ZANU-PF hardliners bent not only on retaining the presidency, but overturning the parliamentary results as well. Over the weekend, ZEC started an unobserved recount of votes cast in for legislative seats in some 23 constituencies won by the opposition after a Mugabe-appointed judge on the High Court, Justice Antonia Guvava, dismissed a challenge to the move. A change of just nine seats after would allow ZANU-PF to reclaim the majority which it had lost in the House of Assembly. Meanwhile, hounded by reports in state-controlled media that he was guilty of “treason” for alleging plotting with the former colonial ruler, Great Britain, Tsvangirai – who, it should be noted, has been repeatedly jailed by the regime and last year was so badly beaten that he was hospitalized with severe head trauma – found discretion the better part of valor and, like the estimated one-fourth of his countrymen who have already fled the Mugabe dictatorship, slipped across the border to Botswana to try to rally support from other African leaders.

Batswana President Ian Khama, whose democratic and well-governed country, as I noted in last week’s column, stands in stark contrast with its neighbor to the east, not only took in the Zimbabwean opposition leader, but called on Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, current chairman of the fifteen-member Southern African Development Community (SADC), to convene an emergency summit of the subregional organization’s heads of state and government to discuss the volatile situation in Zimbabwe. Not surprisingly, Mugabe boycotted the meeting in Lusaka on April 11 and his neighbors accomplished little more after a marathon thirteen-hour session than issuing a communiqué urging the ZEC to release the presidential results “as expeditiously as possible.” A previously scheduled summit in Port Louis, Mauritius, of SADC presidents and ministers last weekend doggedly stuck to its agenda of development and poverty and failed to make any statement critical of Zimbabwe. The subregional club also rebuffed calls by Tsvangirai to relieve South Africa’s lame duck president, Thabo Mbeki, of his role as its lead mediator for Zimbabwe. Instead Mauritian Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam said that the summiteers had “complete faith in President Mbeki” and had “renewed our confidence in him.”

Part of the blame for current impasse in Zimbabwe can actually be laid at the doorstep Mbeki. It was bad enough that, during his two terms in office, the South African leader repeatedly propped up the ZANU-PF regime, but he added insult to injury when, stopping off in Harare for a visit with Mugabe while en route to the Lusaka summit, Mbeki was seen walking literally hand-in-hand with Comrade Bob sharing a laugh. The joke, however, turned out to be Mbeki himself when he shamelessly responded negatively to a reporter who asked if he believed there was a crisis in Zimbabwe:

No…there’s been an electoral process that has taken place in Zimbabwe. Eh, we are waiting, everybody, everybody is waiting for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to announce all the results that are outstanding. Of course, there is also the matter of the court case, of the court to rule, I understand, on Monday. And, and if nobody wins a clear majority, in terms of presidential elections, the law provides that there should be a second round. So that’s, that’s what’s happening…I wouldn’t describe that as a crisis. It’s the normal electoral process according to the law of Zimbabwe.

(The son of a prominent Communist Party activist who describes himself as “born into the struggle” and who spent nearly three decades in exile because of his work for the African National Congress, Mbeki is loath to see any liberation movement ousted from power. Moreover, he has a record of allowing personal idiosyncrasies and loyalties to trump sound judgment as evidenced by his own widely-condemned insistence that AIDS was not caused by the HIV and for his appointment of a health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who has questioned the efficacy of conventional anti-retroviral drugs in the treatment of the disease while simultaneously championing the allegedly therapeutic effects of a cocktail of beetroots, garlic, and African potatoes.)

Four days after his “no crisis” assessment, on April 16, Mbeki was in New York for a special session of the United Nations Security Council which he had used South Africa’s chairmanship this month to convene for purposes of discussing improved cooperation between the African Union (AU) and the world body. Absent from the agenda was any mention of the outstanding crisis of the moment presented to the AU by its Zimbabwean member. Mbeki’s instance that there is “no crisis” is so surreal that Botswana’s foreign minister, Phandu Skelemani, took the unprecedented step of publicly criticizing him directly, telling South Africa’s Mail & Guardian last weekend: “Everyone agreed that things are not normal, except Mbeki. Maybe Mbeki is so deeply involved that he firmly believes things are going right.” Jacob Zuma, leader of the ruling African National Congress and likely next president of South Africa, likewise chimed in, telling a group of business leaders last Thursday that: “The region cannot afford a deepening crisis in Zimbabwe.”

While Africa can ill afford the crisis, its superannuated leaders apparently think they can. The credibility of the AU election observation mission was undermined from the beginning when its leadership was entrusted to former Sierra Leonean President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, a man whose own shamelessness with regard to manipulated election results I documented in my 2005 book Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy. During his first campaign for the presidency in 1996, Kabbah officially beat his opponent, John Karefa-Smart, 35.9 percent to 22 percent in the first round and 59 percent to 41 percent in the second round. During the first round, voting took place in all of the country’s electoral districts except Karefa-Smart’s home district of Tonkolili, where it was cancelled, ostensibly security reasons relating to rebel activity on the eve of the poll. In at least four districts in the Kabbah’s southern stronghold, the returns suggested that more votes had been cast than there were registered voters. The electoral commission chaired by a former UN colleague of Kabbah’s, “solved” the problem by simply reducing Kabbah’s total votes by 70,000, thereby effectively adjusting the total vote in each of the four districts to award him “only” 100 percent of the vote. Overall, the reported voter turnouts defied expectations of observers in that the western and northern areas of Sierra Leone least affected by the conflict at the time registered consistently lower voter participation than the eastern and southern areas where displacement and continuing rebel violence would have been expected to lower the proportion of votes cast. During the second round of the election, the electoral commission initially reported the amazing voter turnouts in four key pro-Kabbah constituencies: Bonthe (155.2 percent), Kailahun (138.7 percent), Kenema (116.9 percent), and Pujehun (339.1 percent). Had the rather suspect results for these four districts alone been annulled, the national results would have given Karefa-Smart a 26 percent margin of victory over Kabbah. As expected, Kabbah duly heaped praise upon the ZEC, commending the electoral board for its “commitment, professionalism and efficiency” and leaving town even before the vote count had even been concluded.

As for the AU itself, not only has the regional organization failed yet to back away from the embarrassingly sycophantic declaration from its election observers, but it went on to issue a communiqué last week to express “its satisfaction once more over the success of these elections,” although it acknowledged “concern over the delay observed in the announcement of the results” and urged “all the parties concerned to show restraint pending the announcement of the results and … to accept the results in good faith” once they are published.

Speaking last Thursday in Washington at an on-the-record briefing, United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed her frustration with African leaders whom she essentially accused of coddling Mugabe:

[F]rankly, the United States and the European Union and others have spoken out about this and we’ve made calls, but it’s time for Africa to step up. Where is the concern from the African Union and from Zimbabwe’s neighbors about what is going on in Zimbabwe? …We obviously stand with the Zimbabwean people for carrying out the results of an election, which means that they need to get the results and there needs to be a peaceful transfer of power, if that’s what’s necessitated. But again, the region also needs to be – to speak up here. It needs to be engaged. It needs to speak up. I’ve heard from some, well, outside interference of Western powers. Well, all right, then let the AU and SADC have a voice.

To be fair, other Africans were not the only foreigners buying Mugabe time to regroup and, potentially, to annul the popular will of Zimbabweans. For example, in a National Review Online commentary last week, the American Enterprise Institute’s Roger Bate notes that a German company, Giesecke & Devrient, was literally printing money which ZANU-PF used to try to purchase loyalty. Despite Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rhetorical denunciations of Mugabe, her government considers the firm’s complicity in the regime’s efforts to be “a private matter.”

Not surprisingly, one of Mugabe’s most important enablers has been the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As I reported here last year, not only has Beijing sold Harare some thirty military aircraft, including FC-1 fighter jets and K-8 light attack aircraft, which the latter can ill afford, but it has also provided the ZANU-PF regime with the literal tools of repression, including radio-jamming equipment and listening devices. Mugabe, like his fellow despot, Sudan’s Umar al-Bashir, has come to expect “customer courtesies” from the PRC like the Chinese prevention of UN discussion of his situation last week (see my column on Beijing’s enabling of Khartoum). Last week, the mainland Chinese actually stepped up their support of the Mugabe regime, shipping some 70 tons of weapons, which reportedly included 3 million rounds of automatic ammunition, 3500 mortars and mortar tubes, as well as 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and their launchers. The materiel was onboard a freighter out of Guangzhou, the An Yue Jiang, which docked at Durban, South Africa, where dock workers belonging to the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union refused to unload the cargo for fear that it would be used against the people of Zimbabwe (the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai is a veteran labor unionist) and a South African human rights group brought a law suit against the government over its refusal to get involved. The ship left South African waters last Friday and, after being turned away from Mozambique and Tanzania – where union dock workers mobilized by the International Transport Workers’ Federation similarly refused to unload its cargo – reportedly set sail for Angola where the ruling Marxist-Leninist party, the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola-Partido do Trabalho (MPLA-PT, “Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola-Labor Party”) presumably keeps a better damper on the political consciousness of its longshoremen as well as the independence of its courts (just last week the Angolan government ordered UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, to close her office’s bureau in Luanda).

The concerns about the use of the munitions shipment are not exaggerated. In his message for Zimbabwean Independence Day, U.S. Ambassador James McGee noted “the many reports of violent retribution being carried out in rural communities” which were being punished for their support of the political opposition as well as “disturbing and confirmed reports of threats, beatings, abductions, burning of homes and even murder, from many parts of the country.” Meanwhile MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti has detailed at least ten killings and hundreds of injuries in a post-election campaign of orchestrated violence which has also displaced thousands and Human Rights Watch has issued a report accusing ZANU-PF of “using a network of informal detention centers to beat, torture, and intimidate opposition activists and ordinary Zimbabweans.” In the face of these abuses, the advocacy group’s Africa director lamented that “SADC and President Mbeki have completely failed Zimbabweans.”

The failure of African leaders act decisively against the instability that Mugabe is creating across region as well as the support which he has received from mainland China and other quarters only prolongs the current crisis by giving the Zimbabwean ruler reason to believe that he can, once again, escape accountability. Unfortunately, it is the people of Zimbabwe who will continue to bear most of the cost for an octogenarian megalomaniac’s refusal to bow out and the pusillanimous inability of his neighbors to acknowledge the situation for what it is.