On Point: Africa's "Slobo"

by Austin Bay

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

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

Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic? No, Slobo's been nabbed and is ontrial in the Hague. This time the scoundrel is Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. Thelocal context is a March 2002 national election in Zimbabwe, where onceagain Mugabe's election platform includes the murder of his democraticopponents in the black-led Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Theregional context is a central (Democratic Republic of Congo) andsouthwestern (Angola) Africa already aflame, with Zimbabwe -- thanks toMugabe's malfeasance -- teetering.

The blood began to spill this election cycle in late 2001 with aseries of kidnappings and the murder of MDC activists by hard-line thugsbelonging to Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front(ZANU-PF). One of the biggest scams was the attempt to blame the MDC for thedeath of one of Mugabe's supporters, Cain Nkala. Mugabe's propaganda conceptwas 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 ofmutual interest. Qaddafi has a record of supplying security personnel andtroops to sub-Saharan African strongmen who feel besieged.

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

It's sad. February 2002 inside Zimbabwe looks a lot likeFebruary 2000, when, after the defeat of a "land reform" referendum thatwould have given Mugabe power to take white-owned farms withoutcompensation, gangs under his control occupied those farms. The defeat ofthe referendum clued Mugabe that his regime, in power since 1980, was atrisk.

Mugabe's "farm occupation" policy utilized two themes that havebeen political ace cards for numerous African dictators: "combatingcolonialism" and "fighting racism."

There's a good argument that the land rights of some whitefarmers 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 withfacts. MDC leaders argue in the international and regional press (remember,the press is free in Botswana and South Africa) that Mugabe is using "racismand colonialism" to deny responsibility for his failures and to deflectcriticism for his slide into dictatorship. The MDC is the first democraticopposition group in Africa to realize that African kleptocrats no longer geta free pass from the international press, and they are relying on presscoverage and diplomatic pressure to help thwart Mugabe's bullies.

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

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

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

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

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

Mugabe may succeed in temporarily stifling his opposition. TheMDC, however, is a credible opposition force, and one gaining the support ofwealthy, democratic, multi-ethnic South Africa -- a South Africa thatrealizes kleptocrats like Mugabe are threats to regional peace.

Read Austin Bay's Latest Book

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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