African Nations' Growing Contempt for Stolen Elections

There was a time when a stolen election in an African state, with a few hundred dead, would hardly have raised eyebrows—let alone been condemned by leaders of neighboring countries. In the days of Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko and Uganda's Idi Amin, mass murder was more the rule than the exception; so it was in Rwanda 14 years ago, and, more recently, in Congo and Sudan. Throughout it all, most African leaders kept carefully quiet, loath to publicly criticize their colleagues.

But Africa has changed profoundly since then, and Robert Mugabe might be feeling a little nostalgic. As the violence in Zimbabwe exploded recently in the run-up to the second round of the presidential election—which Mugabe was determined to steal—the chorus of condemnation became deafening. From fellow Marxist revolutionaries like José dos Santos of Angola to former supporters like Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete, leaders in most nearby countries expressed revulsion at the way Mugabe turned the June 27 runoff into a blood-drenched farce. Even Nelson andela, who's famously reticent to remonstrate other African leaders, decided he'd had enough. On June 25, he used the occasion of his 90th birthday to publicly condemn the "tragic failure of leadership" in Zimbabwe. Mandela didn't mention any names, but it was clear whom he was talking about.

This unprecedented criticism is partly a testament to Mugabe's thuggery. In the six-week-long campaign, at least 80 and as many as 500 opposition figures were murdered by thugs from the ruling ZANUPF, according to human-rights activists; the victims included the wife of the mayor of Harare, a member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. The MDC itself pulled out of the vote with just days to go after its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, took refuge in the Dutch Embassy and decided further campaigning would only get more of his supporters killed. In a phone interview, Tsvangirai accused Mugabe of pressing a campaign of terror against the party, which won a parliamentary majority in the first round of voting in March. "Most of our M.P.s are in hiding now or have left the country," he says.

As Mugabe squeezed, Zimbabwe's already desperate economic crisis worsened. Inflation, which topped 165,000 percent in February (according to Reuters)—already the highest in the world—recently hit a mind-boggling 30 million percent, according to Harare's Financial Gazette. Bread sells on the black market for 3.5 billion Zimbabwean dollars a loaf. As the U.S. ambassador in Harare, James McGee, put it, "Mugabe turned Zimbabwe from the breadbasket of southern Africa into its basket case."

Yet none of this quite explains the growing African contempt for a man once seen as a revolutionary hero. After all, Mugabe's brutal behavior is hardly new. Although in 1980, at the time of his election, Mugabe was hailed by President Jimmy Carter as "a notable world leader," he was never the model citizen his positive press suggested. He did show surprisingly clemency to the white citizens of the former Rhodesia, including their leader, Ian Smith, after overthrowing white rule in 1979. But by 1983 Mugabe had declared his dream of a one-party state that ZANUPF would "rule forever," and he quickly set about massacring his opponents.

What has changed is Africa. In the past four years, according to the U.S. State Department, there have been more than 50 democratic elections at all levels continentwide. Sierra Leone, Liberia and Mozambique recently held reasonably fair national votes, and even Kenya's contested poll produced a representative government in the end. Almost three quarters of sub-Saharan nations are now classified by Freedom House as "free" or "partly free"—up from less than half in 1990. With the rise in democracy has come a waning of revolutionary solidarity; gone are the days when Africa's big men stood shoulder to shoulder in the all-consuming fight against imperialism.

In splitting his allies, "Mugabe has done the unthinkable," says Prof. John Makumbe, who teaches political science at the University of Zimbabwe. "We are seeing an unprecedented departure from the normal practice of African heads of state, which was to stand solidly behind any other African leader." Nicholas van de Walle, an expert on the region at Cornell University, notes that Mugabe is now "bad for business. He's destroying tourism in neighboring Botswana and Zambia and Malawi. He's dragging down the whole region. And there is the issue of refugees," which are destabilizing nearby countries.

The 14-state Southern African Development Community includes some of Africa's most progressive young democracies, and they have become especially strident in their criticism. Levy Mwanawasa, the president of Zambia and the chair of the SADC, has called Mugabe's behavior "a terrible embarrassment to us all"; Rwandan President Paul Kagame says the election was "a joke." Rwanda is a particularly stark contrast to Zimbabwe, and represents the new Africa to Mugabe's old one. Though Kagame himself is sometimes criticized for refusing to tolerate dissent, he has managed to stop cold the bloodshed and ethnic strife that almost tore his state apart in 1994, and he has built an IT-heavy economy that charted an impressive 6.3 percent GDP growth rate last year.

As Mugabe's isolation grows, he's dragging down the reputation of one other leader with him: South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki. Though appointed by the MDC as point man on Zimbabwe, Mbeki has refused to denounce his old ally. (Namibia and Malawi have also kept mum, but given their size, that's less significant.) The South African's stubborn silence is hurting his standing at home and abroad. Public opinion in South Africa has turned strongly against Mugabe, due especially to the arrival of some 3 million to 4 million Zimbabwean refugees. Jacob Zuma, chairman of the African National Congress (Mbeki's party), has called the situation in Zimbabwe "out of control"; trade unions have blocked imports to the country, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who once defended Mugabe as a fellow revolutionary, recently blasted him as a "sort of Frankenstein." On June 23, the U.N. Security Council did issue a declaration, which South Africa endorsed, denouncing the runoff and urging that the first round of voting be respected—the first time the United Nations has condemned Mugabe. Still, Mbeki's indolence has seriously damaged his already tarnished reputation. "It's a horrible black mark on a man whose focus on an African renaissance included so many good ideas," says Michelle Gavin of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Now he's being associated with enabling a brutal dictator and the utter collapse of another country." Sasha Polakow-Suransky, a South African author and journalist, says "Mbeki's refusal to take a tougher stance" has cost his government "a great deal of credibility in the eyes of the world" and "left a leadership vacuum in the region."

As Mbeki fiddles, Zimbabwe burns. Western diplomats in Harare worry the violence will continue after the election, as part of "Operation Inky Finger"—in which government thugs target voters who stayed away from the polls and hence didn't get telltale ink marks. In the days before the vote, MDC workers continued to flee, many seeking refuge in South Africa's embassy or heading over the borders as so many ordinary folk have already done. These refugees highlight one of the many pressure points Mbeki could exploit if he really decided to influence Mugabe. South Africa could seal its borders with its landlocked neighbor and cut its power supply. Unless it does, Mugabe seems likely to remain in charge. He may be a dinosaur with no place left in modern Africa. But before he goes, he may still take plenty of his fellow citizens with him.