- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

Presidents from 14 African states came together two weeks ago for the Southern African Development Community summit in Malawi.

Leaders opened the summit by calling for free and fair elections in Zimbabwe, where tensions are rising ahead of presidential polls scheduled for March 9 and 10.

President Robert Mugabe's efforts to hold onto power by clamping down on dissent and stifling the press have sent the country's economy spiraling and have scared off foreign investment.

Once a key figure in southern Africa's leadership, Mr. Mugabe has become an example of what not to do. Rather than emulate his attempts to hold power and suffer a similar economic decline, other leaders across the region are announcing that they will step down at the end of their lawful terms in office. This trend will reshape southern Africa's political landscape, and it represents an important step toward political legitimacy for a continent known for its corruption and presidents-for-life.

The region still needs massive amounts of aid and investment to fuel the development of infrastructure and industry. But in order to attract investment, southern African leaders must avoid political unrest. Zimbabwe's political troubles and contracting economy, combined with a slowdown in South Africa, will translate into slower growth for the entire region. By developing a legitimate means of transferring power, African governments hope to reassure investors and secure the region's long-term prospects for economic growth.

Faced with an increasingly popular and organized opposition, Mr. Mugabe has instituted several measures to keep from being toppled in the coming election. Among these was the seizure of white-owned farms, which was intended to increase his support among landless blacks. Most recently, the president's ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), pushed through Parliament a package of draconian laws that outlaw anti-Mugabe rhetoric, authorize police to disperse public gatherings and ban independent election monitors.

Zimbabwe is the second-most industrialized country in the region after South Africa. But two years of political instability and unpopular government policies have left the economy in shambles. Real gross domestic product is projected to contract by 5 percent this year, reports the Economist Intelligence Unit.

During the Cold War, African presidents who wanted to stay in power could turn to other players such as Russia for aid without having to hold free and fair elections. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, African governments have been forced to look to the West for development aid and investment. But retaining that lifeline requires a commitment to democracy and free-market economics.

Zimbabwe's policies have triggered widespread international criticism. Australia, Canada and Britain Zimbabwe's former colonial power recently called for the country's suspension from the 54-nation Commonwealth. London also has threatened targeted sanctions against Harare's leaders. But with foreign aid and investment to Zimbabwe already reduced to a trickle, the threats of punitive measures are largely symbolic.

Mr. Mugabe has been able to resist outside pressure because he is willing to let the economy sink rather than give up power. And thanks to mining interests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Zimbabwe has about 14,000 troops deployed, his government maintains the support of the country's security forces.

Other governments in the region are less willing or able to suffer similar economic and political strife. In order to escape Zimbabwe's fate, several regional presidents have announced that they will step down when their terms end. For instance, Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos, who has been in power since 1979, announced in August that he would not run for another term, IRIN reported.

Angola's presidential elections haven't even been scheduled yet. But the dos Santos announcement serves as a means of building the confidence of foreign investors who look at Zimbabwe and think twice about investment opportunities in other southern African states. President Sam Nujoma of Namibia and President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique also have announced that they will not seek re-election in 2004.

That does not mean that these presidents will give up power. The recent elections in Zambia are a perfect example.

President Frederick Chiluba lost his bid to amend the constitution and run for a third term. However, his ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy still retained control of the presidency by a slim margin. By being able to pick his successor, Mr. Chiluba ensures that he will be able to wield some behind-the-scenes influence.

Even so, the elections did expand the opposition's presence in parliament and, more important, maintained investor confidence in Zambia's fledgling democracy.

Even Kenya, East Africa's economic leader, is gearing up for a transition of power. Rather than face a drop in foreign investment and aid, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi may step down at the end of his term in December 2002. He is likely maneuvering to maintain control over the country's leadership if he steps aside.

However, whether leaders in the region still exert influence even after "leaving" office is of limited concern to Western governments. Peaceful transitions of power and the continued stability of these countries are more important.

Since independence, Africa has struggled to achieve stability and legitimacy. This effort has been stunted as one coup after another has represented the most popular means for transitioning power. Across the continent, presidents have become dictators as they altered or abrogated their countries' constitutions in order to retain control.

Jamie Etheridge is an analyst at STRATFOR in Austin, Texas, a provider of global intelligence to private companies and subscribers. Its Web site is Stratfor.com.

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