Hit Mugabe Hard Where It Hurts, Now
Sydney Morning Herald, 21 January 2002
Robert Mugabe is on track to win the coming presidential election in Zimbabwe by the foulest of means. He began two years ago a campaign of violent intimidation, cynical and corrupt exploitation of the land reform issue and unconscionable abuse of power. International attention has at last been engaged, but action despite repeated calls by organisations like mine for targeted sanctions has so far been lamentably weak. Time is running out, with just over six weeks left before the poll.
Reports from Zimbabwe, limited by the rigid controls the Government has imposed on the independent media, indicate that the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front, is already rigging electoral rolls and preparing to stuff ballot boxes.
The occupation of farms by President Mugabe's supporters and subsequent displacement of farm workers is central to the ruling party's election strategy. Driven from their homes, many thousands of presumed opposition supporters will be disqualified from voting. Sheer terror will also play its part.
Five supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change have been killed in the past two weeks. MDC MP David Mpala was abducted and stabbed in the same period. Seven people died in politically related killings in December and if nothing changes the incidence of murder, torture, unlawful detention and arrest, seem certain to rise as the poll approaches. The police protect the abusers, rarely investigating attacks on opposition supporters and doing nothing to stop violent farm invasions, sometimes actively supporting the invaders.
Most disturbingly, on January 9, Zimbabwe's defence force chief declared that the military would withhold support from any elected president they saw as unfit for office a direct threat to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, and an unconscionable breach of constitutional principle.
In the past week the European Union, the Commonwealth, the United States and the Southern African Development Community have all gone through the motions of increasing diplomatic pressure on Mugabe. The EU is considering economic sanctions, the US and Britain are investigating the offshore assets of Mugabe's inner circle, some Commonwealth countries (with Australia playing a welcome prominent role) are moving towards Zimbabwe's suspension.
The SADC has urged Mugabe to uphold regionally agreed principles on elections. But no-one has taken any action that will have a direct impact on the leadership. Mugabe has continued to walk away from meetings promising to uphold the rule of law and allow free and fair elections, but delivering on none of his pledges. To provide the best chance for a relatively fair election, meaningful personal sanctions should be applied right now to Mugabe and those closest to him, to be lifted only if the voting process proves acceptable. Even if Zimbabwe suddenly admits election monitors and foreign journalists, and instructs police to arrest those who commit acts of violence, there is every chance standards will slip as the polling days approach. It will be all too easy to be selective about which observers and reporters are allowed in, put bureaucratic obstacles in the way of travel plans and visas, and arrange police roadblocks around a "dangerous area" to stop monitors and media from moving around once they are in the country. By the time their complaints are lodged, the election will be over.
The imposition of travel bans by the EU, US and Commonwealth countries on the ZANU-PF leadership at this late stage would be largely symbolic, but usefully so. A provisional freeze on access to foreign-held bank accounts and assets would hurt more. Action of almost any kind by Zimbabwe's southern African neighbours would hurt most of all. These are the countries that have the most to lose from Zimbabwe's slide, and the only ones with a chance of exerting personal influence on its president. Mugabe and his cronies are reported to have sizable financial interests in South Africa and any restrictions on access to that property and funds would certainly sting. Even if Mugabe is beyond influence, targeted sanctions would certainly affect the calculations of other ruling party officials now weighing their personal interests against those of the country.
For the past 18 months, South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki has pursued a policy of almost noiseless diplomacy with Mugabe. It's time to acknowledge that this policy has failed and South Africa is the loser for it. Around 500 refugees from violence, poverty and food shortages are crossing the Limpopo River from Zimbabwe every day. South Africa's state-run energy companies are carrying significant debts as Zimbabwe falls further behind on payments for electricity and fuel. And if Zimbabwe's breakdown continues, and major conflict erupts, South Africa and its SADC neighbours will be massively harmed.
Unfortunately SADC members, on all the evidence to date, are the least likely to take action against Mugabe.
The southern African liberation leaders, most of them vulnerable to criticism for anti-democratic behaviour of their own, seem prepared to tolerate almost any excess by fellow club members. And Mugabe has chosen his ground well. A lasting legacy of colonialism is the unequal distribution of farmland, with Zimbabwe not the only country in the region where much of the most profitable land is still owned or controlled by whites. It's an immensely charged issue, especially in South Africa, and not one on which Mugabe's colleagues are prepared to speak out.
If Mugabe does win the presidential election, the first question for the international community must be whether the result should be recognised.
By accepting the result of a corrupt election process, the international community would be, in effect, condoning illegal land grabs, the demolition of democratic principles and the independence of the judiciary, the co-opting of the police and army for political ends and economic vandalism. This won't help the effort elsewhere in Africa to achieve greater democratisation and economic progress.
Unhappily for his country and his own historical legacy, Mugabe seems to have long moved beyond reach of rational persuasion. Archbishop Desmond Tutu got it right when he described the Zimbabwean leader as "power-mad". If Mugabe is to be stopped, the power and status of him and those around him must be threatened. Sharply targeted personal sanctions, directed at Mugabe and his family and key supporters, applied now and maintained as long as it takes, are the only effective lever left.
Enough barking, old colleagues of mine: it's time to do some biting.