by Austin Bay
April 5, 2005
Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe combines the worst aspects of
Cold War and War on Terror tyranny.
Think of Mugabe as an African Slobodan Milosevic. When the Cold
War closed down, Milosevic morphed from Yugoslav communist to Serb fascist.
As time passed in southern Africa, shape-shifting Mugabe adjusted his
schtick, moving from Marx-spouting revolutionary to kleptocrat tribal
dictator. Both thugs are ethnic cleansers and cynical thieves who murder
rivals, silence the press and brutally intimidate domestic opposition.
There is a major difference: Milosevic is under arrest, while
Mugabe continues to destroy a once wealthy nation, while hiding behind a
slick PR campaign that co-opts and corrupts classic "human rights" themes.
Mugabe can give Milosevic -- and, for that matter, Russia's
Vladimir Putin -- lessons in rigging elections. On March 31, Mugabe stole
his third election in five years, making Zimbabwe the world's current leader
in charade democracy.
Mugabe and his thugs tried to steal the last one quietly. As
elections approached, Mugabe began denying foreign reporters entry visas. He
imposed a law that made "unauthorized demonstrations" a felony punishable by
up to 20 years in jail -- a law aimed at his democratic opponents in The
Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). And then there's the food weapon.
Mugabe's government controls Zimbabwe's food supplies. Cooperate, and you
get your loaf of bread. Oppose Mugabe, and food's denied.
Ah, but those pesky priests who won't shut up. Mugabe has had to
threaten church leaders he deems responsible for "encouraging" street
protests. Catholic Bishop Pius Ncube -- a major domestic critic of Mugabe
and his dictatorship -- has been a special target.
Ncube predicted last week's election would be rigged, and Ncube
was right. The "final tally" gave Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National
Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) 74 seats and the MDC 40
There's no question Mugabe committed mass fraud -- and the MDC
has refused to accept the results.
Mugabe may get away with it, breaking the democratic pulse
surging through Afghanistan, Ukraine, Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, and
testing the Bush administration's "pro-democracy" doctrine. The man is
ruthless, and in the past ruthless has worked. Though Mugabe's ethnic
cleansing of the Mdebele in 1980 brought extensive criticism, criticism
never became international opposition to his regime. Whenever international
outrage builds, Mugabe trots out two themes that have been political trumps
for too many African tyrants, "combating colonialism" and "fighting racism."
This mantra stymies a fossil segment of the "human rights Left" -- a crowd
that railed against Milosevic.
Mugabe also appears to have another hole card -- South Africa's
Thabo Mbeki has not played pro-democracy Poland to the Zimbabwe democrats'
would-be Ukraine. In fact, Mbeki looks increasingly weak, ineffectual and
churlish -- a man who knows he stands in Nelson Mandela's shadow and resents
it. Mbeki declared Zimbabwe's elections "free and fair" before the vote. A
few commentators conclude this is Mbeki and Mugabe acting out a senescent
form of "freedom fighter" solidarity, and it may be just that, another
mid-20th century political relic thwarting 21st century democratic change.
Still, international criticism is mounting -- if Kyrgyzstan can
rally for freedom, why not Zimbabwe?
What can be done to support the democrats? Any effective
military action or political-economic sanctions regimen requires South
African cooperation, and Mbeki looks like he's been bought off.
The priests, however, haven't been co-opted. Pope John Paul II's
death has kept Mugabe's electoral fraud out of the news cycle, but there is
a "John Paul" option that could benefit peaceful change throughout
sub-Sahran Africa. The Polish Pope Paul inspired Eastern European resistance
to communism and inspired billions with his spiritual and moral leadership.
An African pope could do the same for African democrats.
There are signals that this could happen. French Cardinal
Bernard Panafieu, when asked about electing a "Third World" pope, replied,
"Everything is possible."
An African pope would change the political dynamics in
sub-Saharan Africa, and put dictators like Mugabe under insistent global
scrutiny -- the first step to putting them all in jail.