A Test Case for Africa

Zimbabwe’s strongman could symbolise Africa’s past—or its future

THIS year Africa plans an impressive number of presidential, parliamentary and local elections. The continent’s boosters like to argue that this heralds a new age of democracy, part of the “African renaissance” that has been under way since the turn of the century with the creation of the revamped African Union and a new commitment to good governance. Before it breaks out the champagne, however, Africa needs to do something about Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, the tiresome guest who just won’t go away.

Zimbabwe is hardly the worst story from Africa. Nor is Mr Mugabe the world’s worst dictator. Nothing he has done holds a candle to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, or the government-inspired slaughter in the Darfur region of Sudan today. His fiercest critics claim he oversaw attempted genocide in the 1980s in Matebeleland, when several thousand people were killed. But it is fairer to think of him as just a moderately violent thug with a touch of megalomania, whose goons club rivals, who closes newspapers, harasses judges and bans public meetings. He even holds elections, albeit rigged ones. The consequences are not trivial: he has destroyed the economy of a once prosperous country and caused a mass exodus of its people. But, in the African scheme, he is a commonplace sort of villain (see article).

That is part of the reason his neighbours have tolerated him. It is also what makes his remaining in power so worrying. For the Mugabe pattern is in danger of infecting many parts of Africa. In a democracy index for sub-Saharan Africa, the Economist Intelligence Unit, our sister organisation, concluded recently that although almost all countries now hold elections, only Mauritius deserves to be rated fully democratic. That judgment is harsh-South Africa was excluded only because it lacks a strong opposition-but the general point holds. The fate of Zimbabwe under Mr Mugabe could all too easily become that of other African democracies, from Nigeria to Ethiopia, and even-one day perhaps-to South Africa itself. Congo is at serious risk of lapsing back into authoritarian rule only months after hugely expensive elections, overseen and protected by the United Nations.

If Africa’s leaders want to be taken seriously on democracy and human rights, they simply must speak out in a case as clear as Zimbabwe’s. Mr Mugabe is expert at dismissing the West’s criticisms as white man’s dictation. Britain in particular has little credibility in its former colony. For too long, however, Zimbabwe’s neighbours have allowed solidarity with a hero of the liberation struggle to drown out criticisms of what he has become. Now, at last, the mood is changing. “We Africans should hang our heads in shame,” says Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the conscience of the anti-apartheid battle.

Some of the credit for the change of mood should indeed go to the democracy talk sweeping Africa this year. There was a time when African leaders used to argue against multi-party democracy on the ground that it would exacerbate tribal divisions. Now they have made at least a rhetorical commitment to the idea of democracy. Helping to get Mr Mugabe out of power, and following that with free and fair elections, would do much to give substance to the rhetoric. Better still, outside pressure seems this time to coincide with real resistance within Zimbabwe itself, where senior members of Mr Mugabe’s own ZANU-PF party may now be eager to ditch their boss and are known to have been in talks with the official opposition.

The perfect time to act

This opportunity is too good to waste. It would be nice to believe that at 83 Mr Mugabe belongs to Africa’s past. It is in the power of Zimbabwe’s neighbours to make sure of that. But if Africa fails to dislodge him he may instead point to a possible future: an awful reminder that holding bogus elections does not make governments accountable, let alone removable. Without tough action against Zimbabwe, and reforms across the continent, there may be more Mugabes to come.