African Democracy: A Lost Promise

This column was written by Joshua Kurlantzick.
A group once known for meetings where thuggish African dictators gathered essentially to congratulate themselves on staying in power, struck a bold new note. On a continent that in the 1990s had witnessed waves of democratization and the end of apartheid, Africa's young generation of leaders made their break from the past. They announced The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), a vision of progress in which fighting corruption, empowering average people, and ruling justly would be critical. For African nations in the future, NEPAD's charter announced, "Good governance [is] a basic requirement for peace, security and sustainable political and socio-economic development."

One of the driving forces behind NEPAD, South African President Thabo Mbeki, made it clear that the leader of Africa's most powerful nation also would no longer tolerate the brutality and human rights abuses of the past. Mbeki helped negotiate peace deals to end the civil wars in Congo, Burundi, and Liberia. He traveled the continent preaching the virtues of democracy. His words seemed to have an effect — when a coup overthrew the elected government of tiny Togo, the African Union, successor to the OAU, condemned the coup plotters. Other new African leaders, like Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, made similar pledges to negotiate peace on behalf of warring groups in other countries and push for better governance.

But when it comes to one of the region's most brutal dictatorships, this new Africa is nowhere to be found. Over the past two weeks in Zimbabwe, the regime of Robert Mugabe has cracked the skull of Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and beat up another member of the opposition, putting him in critical condition. Mugabe has pledged to remain in power until he is 100 — he is currently 83 — and has driven the Zimbabwean economy into the worst hyperinflation in the world while also burning down the homes of thousands of urban dwellers. A nation once regarded as the breadbasket of southern Africa now faces widespread famine. As James Kirchick recently argued, Mugabe's terror may even constitute genocide, since he has deliberately organized mass murder against his opponents. All the while, alas, Africa's new democrats say virtually nothing.

The crisis in Zimbabwe has been building since 2000, when Mugabe essentially lost a referendum on his rule and struck out first at a small minority of white farmers and then at the MDC and its urban supporters. But for several years, much of the Western press attention — including The New Republic — focused on the plight of the white farmers. Their situation was indeed dire, and several were killed, but today many of the white farmers already have fled Zimbabwe, and the brunt of Mugabe's wrath has focused on the MDC and anyone else who dares to question him, including the urban middle class and people from minority tribes historically hostile to him and his ethnic group, the Shona.

Since late February, the crisis in Zimbabwe seems to be approaching a peak. Perhaps because Mugabe faces renewed pressure from people in his own party and the MDC, which had been weakened in recent years, he appears to have decided to crack down harder. (Some news reports suggest that Mugabe even fears a coup from dissatisfied elements of his security forces.) Besides the beating administered to Tsvangirai, Mugabe recently prevented four other MDC members from leaving the country, and his security forces shot live bullets at an opposition demonstration on March 11. Police reportedly have been administering random beatings to people across the slums of Harare, the capital.

Other African states could wield leverage over Mugabe. South Africa now holds the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council, the biggest bully pulpit. Zimbabwe's economy has become highly dependent on fuel and other types of aid from Pretoria, as well as cross-border trade with and remittances from South Africa, where as many as one million Zimbabweans have fled over the past several years since Mugabe's brutality increased.

But neither Mbeki nor many other African leaders have stepped up. As Mugabe has fixed a series of elections in recent years, South African observers have blessed these rigged polls. Over the past two weeks, the South African foreign ministry issued a mealy-mouthed statement asking Mugabe to respect the rule of law and to push for "a lasting solution to the current challenges faced by the people of Zimbabwe." Mbeki himself remained silent. As reporters noted, Mbeki's weekly African National Congress (ANC) newsletter prodded South Africans to address the continuing scourge of racism in their own country and made no mention of Mugabe. The ANC even called the Mugabe crackdown "alleged" despite television footage of Zimbabwean thugs beating opposition activists. The African Union, meanwhile, criticized Mugabe's treatment of the MDC but did little else, simply calling for a "constructive dialogue" in Zimbabwe. Ghana's president, another supposed new African leader who also currently chairs the AU, told the press, "Please don't think that Africa is not concerned. Africa is very much concerned. What can Mbeki as a man do?"

"We Africans should hang our heads in shame," Archbishop Desmond Tutu announced this week. "How can what is happening in Zimbabwe elicit hardly a word of concern let alone condemnation from us leaders of Africa?" Tutu went on. "Do we really care about human rights, do we care that people of flesh and blood, fellow Africans, are being treated like rubbish, almost worse than they were ever treated by rabid racists?"

Why have so many new African democrats refused to criticize Mugabe? Some still remember Mugabe's role as a valiant fighter against white rule in then-Rhodesia and are reluctant to criticize this old lion. This is particularly true for Mbeki, a technocrat whose (wise) neoliberal economic policies have strengthened South Africa's fiscal situation but left him open to attack for betraying poor black South Africans, some of whom may have a quiet respect for Mugabe.

Or the answer is worse. By refusing to question Mugabe's vote rigging and intimidation, these new African democrats may believe they can insulate themselves from similar treatment. After all, so many of these new leaders have fallen far short of their promises. Nigeria's Obasanjo tried to rewrite his nation's constitution to obtain another term in office. Uganda's Museveni continues to fix the political process in order to stay in power. Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi, another supposed new leader, has turned increasingly authoritarian. Little wonder, then, that Mugabe remains confident.

By Joshua Kurlantzick
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