At least for purposes of public consumption, southern Africa’s political leaders continue to stand by Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, despite his country’s ever-deepening economic crisis, which is directly attributable to his tyrannical rule. Indeed, years of economic mismanagement have produced an unemployment rate of 80 percent, with annual inflation nearing 5,000 percent.
Though Zimbabwe was once known as “the breadbasket of Africa, many of its citizens now go hungry and depend on international food donations for survival. About 3,000 people flee the country every day, often risking their lives when crossing the crocodile-infested Limpopo River – celebrated in Kipling’s tale of “How the Elephant Got Its Trunk – and scaling a border fence to enter South Africa.
By now, emigration is more than three million, about a quarter of the population. Yet when Mugabe was introduced at the most recent meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, his fellow heads of state heartily applauded him.
There are reports that, behind the scenes, things are different. South African President Thabo Mbeki is said to be trying to negotiate a way for Mugabe to leave the scene. Yet there have been similar rumors before, and it is difficult to know whether Mbeki and the other southern African leaders are finally willing to tell Mugabe that he must go. Up to now, paying their respects to him as a revolutionary leader, and catering to his megalomania, has been more important to them than alleviating the suffering of Zimbabwe’s people.
The obvious way for Mugabe to leave at age 83 would be to announce that he has changed his mind about running again in the presidential election now scheduled for March 2008. Of course, should Mugabe stand down, a fair election next March probably would not be possible. The political opposition would have little capacity to organize an effective campaign in an environment in which Mugabe has shut down independent media, rewritten electoral rules, and used the police to pummel – literally – his adversaries.
So a period of transition would be required for a proper election to be organized under the auspices of the SADC, with support from the African Union, Europe, and the United States, in order to get a fair result and launch a recovery process. Yet, given the brief period that remains until the scheduled election, an announcement is required soon if a fair result is to be achieved and a recovery process launched to halt the country’s slide into chaos.
A big factor in any timetable for Zimbabwe’s rescue is Thabo Mbeki’s tenure. He has just over a year-and-a-half to go to complete his second and final five-year term as South Africa’s president. In certain respects, he has been a success. Under his leadership, South African’s multiracial democracy has been consolidated, and, in dramatic contrast to neighboring Zimbabwe, its economy is flourishing.
Yet Mbeki’s achievement is severely marred by two failures. Domestically, his poor performance in addressing South Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic will ensure that he is judged harshly. Internationally, his record is stained by his lack of leadership up to now in dealing with Zimbabwe.
Nevertheless, even at this late date, Mbeki has a chance to salvage a good part of his reputation by taking the lead in organizing a transition in Zimbabwe. But, given the amount of time a transition will take, he must act now.
Even when a transition does take place in Zimbabwe, the crisis will not be over. The country has been so devastated by the Mugabe regime that substantial international engagement will be required to put it back on its feet. For now, however, the SADC should, at long last, tell Mugabe that he must step aside, and it should take responsibility for managing an electoral process whose result Zimbabweans will recognize as fair, thereby providing the legitimacy needed for recovery to begin.
Aryeh Neier, the president of the Open Society Institute and a founder of Human Rights Watch, is the author most recently of Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).