Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Would African leaders act differently if Mugabe was white?

By Nicholas Kristof

Patson Chipiro, a democracy activist, wasn't home when Robert Mugabe's thugs showed up looking for him. So they grabbed his wife, Dadirai, and tormented her by chopping off one of her hands and both of her feet. Finally, they threw her into a hut, locked the door and burned it to the ground.

That has been the pattern lately: With opposition figures in hiding, Mugabe's goons kill loved ones to send a message of intimidation. Even the wife of the mayor-elect of Harare, the capital, was kidnapped and beaten to death. When the white supremacist regime of Ian Smith oppressed Zimbabweans in the 1970s, African countries rallied against it. Eventually, even the white racist government in South Africa demanded change and threatened to cut off electricity supplies if it didn't happen.

Yet South African President Thabo Mbeki continues to make excuses for Mugabe — who is more brutal than Ian Smith ever was — out of misplaced deference for a common history in the liberation struggle. Zimbabweans suffered so much for so many decades from white racism that the last thing they need is excuses for Mugabe's brutality because of his skin colour. Life expectancy in Zimbabwe has already dropped from the low 60s to the high 30s. It's true that he has created more trillionaires than any other country, but that's only because inflation may be as much as 10,000,000%. Anyone with US$90 is a trillionaire in Zimbabwean dollars, and buying a small loaf of bread costs 1 billion Zimbabwean dollars. When I grew up in the 1970s, a central truth was that Ian Smith was evil and Mugabe heroic. So it was jolting on my last visit to Zimbabwe, in 2005, to see how many Zimbabweans looked back on oppressive white rule with nostalgia. They offered a refrain: "Back then, at least parents could feed their children."

Africa's rulers often complain, with justice, that the West's perceptions of the continent are disproportionately shaped by buffoons and tyrants rather than by the increasing number of democratically elected presidents presiding over 6 percent growth rates. But as long as African presidents mollycoddle Mugabe, they are branding Africa with his image.

To his credit, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa has taken the lead in denouncing Mugabe's abuses, and Nelson Mandela bluntly deplored Mugabe's "tragic failure of leadership." Mandela could also have been talking about Mbeki's own failures. The United States doesn't have much leverage, and Britain squandered its influence partly by focusing on the plight of dispossessed white farmers. (That's tribalism for Anglo-Saxons.) But there is a way out.

The solution is for leaders at the African Union summit this week to give Mugabe a clear choice. One option would be for him to "retire" honorably — "for health reasons" after some face-saving claims of heart trouble — at a lovely estate in South Africa, taking top aides with him. He would be received respectfully and awarded a $5 million bank account to assure his comfort for the remainder of his days.

The other alternative is that he could dig in his heels and cling to power. African leaders should make clear that in that case, they will back an indictment of him and his aides in the International Criminal Court. Led by the Southern African Development Community, the world will also impose sanctions against Mugabe's circle and cut off all military supplies and spare parts. Mozambique, South Africa and Congo will also cut off the electricity they provide to Zimbabwe.

If those are the alternatives, then the odds are that Mugabe will publicly clutch his chest and insist that he must step down. There will still be risks of civil conflict and a military coup, but Zimbabwe would have a reasonable prospect of again becoming, as Mugabe once called it, "the jewel of Africa." Some people will object that a tyrant shouldn't be rewarded with a pot of cash and a comfortable exile. That's true. But any other approach will likely result in far more deaths, perhaps even civil war.

How do we know that sanctions will work? Well, we have Mugabe's own testimony. In a 1987 essay in Foreign Affairs, Mugabe called on the U.S. to impose sanctions on white-ruled South Africa for engaging in a "vicious and ugly civil war" against its own people. Mugabe demanded that the world "accept the value of sanctions as a means of raising the cost" of brutal misrule. If only Mugabe were a white racist! Then the regional powers might stand up to him. For the sake of Zimbabweans, we should be as resolute in confronting African tyrants who are black as in confronting those who are white.

Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.

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