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On Point

Africa's "Slobo"


by Austin Bay

He's an ethnic cleanser, a "former Marxist" and a cynical thief whose greed and mismanagement has destroyed a once productive economy.

His scheme to retain power involves the dictator's usual routines: stoking ethnic strife, inciting economic envy, silencing the press, physically intimidating his domestic opposition.

Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic? No, Slobo's been nabbed and is on trial in the Hague. This time the scoundrel is Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. The local context is a March 2002 national election in Zimbabwe, where once again Mugabe's election platform includes the murder of his democratic opponents in the black-led Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The regional context is a central (Democratic Republic of Congo) and southwestern (Angola) Africa already aflame, with Zimbabwe -- thanks to Mugabe's malfeasance -- teetering.

The blood began to spill this election cycle in late 2001 with a series of kidnappings and the murder of MDC activists by hard-line thugs belonging to Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). One of the biggest scams was the attempt to blame the MDC for the death of one of Mugabe's supporters, Cain Nkala. Mugabe's propaganda concept was as shrewd as it was duplicitous: He intended to portray the MDC as a "terrorist organization" and his re-election as part of a "war on terror." Mugabe also met with Libyan dictator Muhamar Qaddafi to discuss topics of mutual interest. Qaddafi has a record of supplying security personnel and troops to sub-Saharan African strongmen who feel besieged.

Since Jan. 1, the MDC reports that another 25 Mugabe opponents have been slain.

It's sad. February 2002 inside Zimbabwe looks a lot like February 2000, when, after the defeat of a "land reform" referendum that would have given Mugabe power to take white-owned farms without compensation, gangs under his control occupied those farms. The defeat of the referendum clued Mugabe that his regime, in power since 1980, was at risk.

Mugabe's "farm occupation" policy utilized two themes that have been political ace cards for numerous African dictators: "combating colonialism" and "fighting racism."

There's a good argument that the land rights of some white farmers are at best tenuous. Many 19th century British settlers in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) acquired land via steel -- the steel of British bayonets.

But the MDC is Mugabe's real target.

The MDC is responding, not with firearms and fists but with facts. MDC leaders argue in the international and regional press (remember, the press is free in Botswana and South Africa) that Mugabe is using "racism and colonialism" to deny responsibility for his failures and to deflect criticism for his slide into dictatorship. The MDC is the first democratic opposition group in Africa to realize that African kleptocrats no longer get a free pass from the international press, and they are relying on press coverage and diplomatic pressure to help thwart Mugabe's bullies.

One difference between 2000 and 2002 is the response of the international community. Great Britain, Canada, the United States and other key trading partners are considering harsh economic sanctions. South Africa, the region's key nation, understands the depth of public discontent in Zimbabwe.

There are several reasons why African autocrats face new scrutiny. One is the simple proliferation of communications technology. Video cameras make oppression harder to hide. Another key reason is the legacy of Nelson Mandela. As a leader Mandela not only ended South Africa's apartheid regime but provided a road map for healing past civil wounds and creating the political and moral foundations for a cooperative future. Mandela has served as an example to the entire world, but in particular to the MDC in neighboring Zimbabwe.

The Rwandan genocide could be a third. The murder of 600,000 Tutsis in 1994 awoke the world to harsh reality of ethnic and tribal terror in post-colonial Africa. While utterly reprehensible colonial legacies still exacerbate conflicts, the Rwandan genocide ended the "age of easy political spin" where Europeans could be blamed in toto for Africa's failures.

Mugabe's "ethnic cleansing" of the Mdebele in 1980 has come in for extensive criticism as well as his own criminal greed.

Several reports link Mugabe and his senior army officers to graft in defense contracts and the theft of mineral riches in the Congo, including black-market diamonds.

Mugabe may succeed in temporarily stifling his opposition. The MDC, however, is a credible opposition force, and one gaining the support of wealthy, democratic, multi-ethnic South Africa -- a South Africa that realizes kleptocrats like Mugabe are threats to regional peace.

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