30th April 03:36
NYT: Tough on Togo, Letting Zimbabwe Slide
The New York Times
April 10, 2005
Tough on Togo, Letting Zimbabwe Slide
By MICHAEL WINES
JOHANNESBURG - Even the heads of state who were its members called
the old Organization for African Unity a dictators' club, one reason
why it was replaced three years ago by a new African Union that was
modeled, in name and purpose, on Europe's own union. The old O.A.U.
fulminated about colonialism and liberation, but was often silent on
human rights and the consent of the governed. The new group, bowing to
a democratic breeze blowing from Mali to Mauritius, stood for the
premise that the rule of law is in, and despotism out.
Take it from Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, a thoroughgoing
democrat. "Anybody who comes to power unconstitutionally," he said at
the union's first meeting in 2002, "cannot sit with us."
So when Robert G. Mugabe attends the next meeting of the African Union,
will he have to stand?
Democratic Africa has lately stifled a coup in Togo, sent peacekeepers
to Burundi and Darfur and ended civil war in the Ivory Coast,
achievements that would have been unthinkable only a decade ago. Yet it
is curiously dumbstruck when dealing with Mr. Mugabe's draconian rule
The latest example is Zimbabwe's March 31 parliamentary elections, in
which Mr. Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic
Front Party thrashed its democratic opponents using electoral tactics
that were less Queensbury Rules than those of professional wrestling.
Starving voters were told to support the Mugabe party or lose access to
food. Village leaders warned that opposition supporters could lose
their homes. In 30 races surveyed by the opposition, roughly 180,000
votes appeared after the polls had closed and the official turnout had
Nonpartisan election monitors and Western nations called the election
grievously flawed. Not so the African Union: Zimbabwe's election was
free and fair, it said. Far from declaring "This will not stand!," the
group commended Zimbabwe's government for "making efforts towards
creating an even playing field."
Why do African leaders who no longer tolerate a Togo coup blanch at
denouncing Mr. Mugabe's strongman tactics? The question seems almost
nonsensical, given that Zimbabwe's political and social implosion has
flooded its neighbors with unwanted refugees and made the nation a
potential vector for regional instability.
The answer, however, is deceptively complex. It begins with the
overriding fact that Zimbabwe, once southern Africa's crown jewel, is
not a backwater state like Togo. And that Mr. Mugabe, who, at 81, is
the surviving patriarch of Africa's liberation struggle, cannot be
criticized or made to submit as easily as some anonymous colonel behind
a military putsch.
Political forces are at work behind the scenes as well. Mr. Mugabe's
brand of race-baiting demagoguery plays well in parts of Africa's vast
underclass, and to challenge him is to risk being branded a pawn of
Foremost, perhaps, African leaders fear that the defeat of a serious
ruler like Mr. Mugabe may help spread the notion that any entrenched
leadership can be unseated by a committed opposition. In Africa, where
most democracies are effectively one-party affairs, such a notion can
Maybe that helps explain why South Africa endorsed the Zimbabwe vote
even more warmly than did the African Union, and why its president,
Thabo Mbeki, has emerged as Mr. Mugabe's most powerful ally.
Coincidentally, perhaps, Mr. Mugabe's opposition, the Movement for
Democratic Change, enjoys strong support from South Africa's labor
movement and from its Communist Party. Both groups are part of Mr.
Mbeki's ruling African National Congress, but are widely expected to
split from it before the 2009 national election.
As Africa's most prominent politician, Mr. Mbeki provides his fellow
leaders with cover to avoid addressing the Mugabe problem. A handful of
democracies, including Nigeria, have been more outspoken in criticizing
aspects of Mr. Mugabe's rule. But none have the gravitas of South
Africa, itself the democratic victor in a liberation struggle not
unlike the one that led to Mr. Mugabe's dictatorship.
If this sounds like a recipe for stalemate, there is an alternative,
voiced in Harare last month by a political activist who demanded
anonymity because he was afraid that his employers would be punished
for his views.
The African Union can put down a coup in Togo, he said, because its
charter ********ly permits intervention in a member nation's affairs in
the case of a coup. But the charter is silent on whether the bloodless
theft of political power by, say, stealing an election, is a coup in
all but name.
"What could change that is if Zimbabwean groups themselves make the
call to the A.U.," he said. "You could make quite a strong argument
that rigging and manipulating elections is a kind of constitutional
Which is precisely why Zimbabwe is such a thorny problem - and, viewed
another way, an opportunity. The prospect that ordinary Zimbabweans
might press for change is distinctly democratic in spirit. And it would
offer a clear test of whether the continent's new commitment to
democratic rule is more than just rhetorical.