- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2003

Having been robbed of their vote in the last election, Zimbabweans are gearing up to vote with their feet. From Monday to Friday, they are expected to protest en masse the theft of democracy and the catastrophic rule of Robert Mugabe. They won’t be alone. The country’s “war veterans” (i.e. former revolutionary thugs) have warned “the consequences of any mass action will be grave,” adding, “we will coordinate with the state agents to fight you off.” And the Zimbabwe military has forebodingly said that it will “bring to bear its full force” upon any protests that turn violent. This has the makings of bloody confrontation.

The Bush administration and other countries are viewing this potential with unease. “The Zimbabwe government reacted to a mostly peaceful stayaway [or strike] last March with violent repression, including numerous severe beatings of stayaway participants and sympathizers. We strongly urge the government of Zimbabwe to respect the right of the citizenry to protest peacefully and not to follow through on threats to suppress the protests,” said the State Department in a statement Wednesday. The statement also urged protesters to maintain peace and order. If the State Department could solve international matters as well as it releases meaningless, precatory advisories, the world would be a better place.

African governments are also worried, but on a path of ineffectivenesss. During a visit to Zimbabwe earlier this month, the presidents of South Africa, Nigeria and Malawi urged Mr. Mugabe, whose “term” ends in 2008, to open talks with the country’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, whose widely popular leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, called on people to protest on Thursday. But this restrained African effort to mediate a solution obviously will be insufficient, given the severity of the situation in Zimbabwe.

Once a hero to many Africans for his role in defeating the white government of what was then Rhodesia, Mr. Mugabe has now become the oppressor of blacks and whites. He has brought Zimbabwe —until recently a breadbasket to southern Africa — hunger, hyper-inflation, joblessness and despair, due in large part to his racially motivated confiscation of white-owned farms. Zimbabweans are beginning to die from malnutrition, and about 8 million are dependent on food aid. Blood transfusions are now among the many scarce commodities. Inflation is currently at 269 percent.

The crisis in the country has wide repercussions. Zimbabwe is another domino of instability in a continent wracked with conflict. Its problems are causing food shortages and refugee problems in neighboring countries.

Other leaders in the region are ineffectively seeking African-born solutions to the continent’s problems. Led by South African President Thabo Mbeki, they have crafted a framework for establishing stability, called the African Peace and Security Council, but only five of 53 states have ratified the measures to establish the institution. Industrialized nations should back this fledgling initiative, but African leaders must bolster their willingness to hold despots accountable.

Mr. Mugabe should not be allowed to punish his people with his own destructive policies, while he enjoys the fruits of South Africa’s stability. Until the government of South Africa and others strengthen their will to pressure dictators in defense of disenfranchised people, Africa won’t gain its footing.

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