It was once the breadbasket of southern Africa, a land whose leader brought reconciliation after a hard struggle for independence. But when that leader clings to power for 28 years—as Robert Mugabe has in Zimbabwe—the results are tragically predictable: a morass of autocratic rule, repression, and economic collapse. The breadbasket is now a basket case.
With Zimbabwe staggering toward a planned June 27 runoff election for president, Mugabe and his allies in the military, police, and ruling party have unleashed a wave of intimidation against an opposition party that appears poised to unseat him. Abductions, torture, more than 2,000 beatings, and at least 36 political killings have followed an inconclusive first round of elections in March, Human Rights Watch reported last week. Mugabe's challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, has been detained three times recently, and some of his rallies have been banned.
In early June, the regime ordered nongovernmental organizations to stop distributing food, charging that the groups were funding the opposition. The ban imperils millions of Zimbabweans. Mugabe has positioned loyalists in the countryside as the sole source of food aid. They are using it to reward his supporters and force Tsvangirai's backers to choose between eating and voting their conscience. "We're dealing with a desperate regime here that will do anything to stay in power," says James McGee, the U.S. ambassador in Harare.
The outside pressure has paled in comparison to Mugabe's determination to hold on to power. Zimbabwe's neighbors are divided over how to deal with Mugabe, 84, whose role as a liberation leader and antiwestern firebrand still has resonance in Africa. South African President Thabo Mbeki, who leads a regional effort to mediate between Mugabe and his foes, is sticking with "quiet diplomacy" that shuns public condemnations of Mugabe. Bush administration officials find that approach underwhelming, even as they call for African leadership on the issue. One senior U.S. official calls the African efforts "a very mixed record."
Hyperinflation. Mugabe retains some tactical advantages: his power of the gun and an economy already so impoverished that it would blunt the impact of any international sanctions. The economy is collapsing, a legacy of forcible land seizures of white-owned farms. Four out of five workers are jobless, and the country suffers the world's worst hyperinflation. Britain, the former colonial power, and the United States have aimed to step up pressure on Mugabe but so far to little effect. "Zimbabwe is not as hard as Burma, but it's clearly a hard case," says Howard Wolpe, director of the Africa program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Adds one British official: "The pressure we can bring to bear is limited."
That holds true for the Bush administration as well. Targeted sanctions on the assets and travel of some in Mugabe's zanu-pf party and the security forces are already in place. The U.N. Security Council will discuss—if only informally—the humanitarian issue in Zimbabwe this week. And the United States and European countries are pushing for Zimbabwe to admit more election monitors.
Yet Mugabe routinely uses U.S. and British criticisms to claim that they are attempting "illegal regime change." Replies the senior U.S. official: "We cannot allow those statements to prevent us from raising our voices on behalf of people seeking democracy." Washington would like to hear more on Zimbabwe from the rest of Africa. "This is who Mugabe is playing to," says Imani Countess, a senior adviser at TransAfrica Forum. "He really doesn't give a hoot about the U.S. and the U.K. He cares about Africa."
But in South Africa, the calculation seems to be that publicly confronting Mugabe would cause him to hunker down more. Mugabe's past stature may also feed Mbeki's caution. "It's sort of the old leaders' club," reasons William Minter, editor of AfricaFocus Bulletin. Not all in the Southern Africa Development Community—the group sponsoring mediation—favor Mbeki's tack. The senior U.S. official says that some want to consider expelling Zimbabwe, asking the Security Council to weigh in, or even launching sanctions.
The best hope for Mugabe's peaceful exit may lie in a negotiated deal for a protected "soft landing" for him and key backers. But that would require the neighbors to wade into the crisis more deeply. Until they do, it's easy to imagine Mugabe holding on, while Zimbabwe keeps sliding downward.