- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Zimbabwe’s repressive leader, Robert Mugabe, is poised to harness his country’s desperation with today’s parliamentary elections. Mr. Mugabe has withheld food aid from persons supporting the opposition and has threatened to continue withholding the aid from districts that do not back him. Under Mr. Mugabe’s thumb, Zimbabwe has gone from breadbasket to basket case, and the ruler’s threat carries real impact: Almost half of Zimbabwe’s 13 million people will likely need food aid in coming months.

Mr. Mugabe has apparently padded voter registration and gutted freedom of the press, and opposition members have been unfairly tried and otherwise harassed. Late last year, the parliament, which is dominated by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, approved legislation that would effectively bar foreign or foreign-supported nongovernmental organizations from speaking out about the government’s violations.

Mr. Mugabe’s transgressions are occurring as key African leaders are asking for comprehensive aid for the continent and have pledged their support for democratic reform. But Mr. Mugabe’s assaults on democracy mean it is unlikely that the United States will find reason to lift its targeted sanctions after today’s elections.

Mr. Mugabe has gotten an undeserved pass from influential leaders, most conspicuously South African President Thabo Mbeki and the African Union, despite the ruinous collapse that confronts Zimbabwe. Since Mr. Mugabe remains in office until 2008, the silence of African leaders can only aid and abet the continued suffering of Zimbabweans at the hands of the Mugabe government — including the land grab he launched five years ago.

Mugabe apologists cloak their support of him in terms like “liberator” during Zimbabwe’s apartheid era. That support, however, is unjustified given Mr. Mugabe’s moves to oppress the very people he purports to have liberated.

Although South Africa has election monitors in Zimbabwe, Mr. Mbeki has already made the mistake of pre-validating the election — a move that puts his credibility irrevocably on the line. If his observers certify a fraudulent election, Mr. Mbeki’s credibility will come into question, as will any pan-African plans he envisions and lobbies for.

Much of Africa could benefit from a strong and credible leader pushing for reform and democracy. Mr. Mbeki must decide whether he will stand for democracy or fall for Mr. Mugabe’s transgressions. A true democratically elected leader loses trust and credibility if he tries to have it both ways.

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