Thursday's election in Zimbabwe was not merely stolen. It was stolen with the complicity -- no, practically the encouragement -- of Africa's most influential democrat. If you think too long about this democrat, moreover, you reach a bleak conclusion. For all the recent democratic strides in Africa, the continental leadership that was supposed to reinforce this progress is not up to the challenge.
The bankrupt democrat in question is Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's president. For the past few years, he's been promising a pan-African Renaissance, a new era in which Africans would take charge of their own problems. Mbeki led the creation of the grandly titled New Partnership for Africa's Development, which commits members to the rule of law and other principles of good government; he's the driving force behind the peer-review mechanism that's supposed to police compliance with those pledges. The New Partnership's principles are quoted frequently by Africa sympathizers who advocate more foreign assistance, and they've boosted Mbeki's profile marvelously. Mbeki has become a fixture at the rich countries' annual Group of Eight summits. He has been treated by George Bush and Tony Blair as a player. He has felt emboldened to advance South Africa as a candidate for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
But do Mbeki's New Partnership principles mean anything? In the run-up to Zimbabwe's election, when the regime's thugs were denying food to suspected opposition sympathizers, Mbeki actually undercut the international pressure for a fair contest. He expressed a serene confidence that the election would be free and fair. He allowed his labor minister, who was serving as the head of the South African observer mission in Zimbabwe, to dismiss the regime's critics as "a problem and a nuisance." He quarreled with the Bush administration's description of Zimbabwe as an outpost of repression. He did everything, in other words, to signal that mass fraud would be acceptable.
And so Zimbabwe's thugs obliged him. Before the election, they arranged for ballot boxes made out of see-through plastic and a voter's roll stuffed with fictitious names. When polling day came, about a tenth of the voters were turned away from election stations for mysterious reasons. One constituency, in which 14,812 people voted according to election officials, was announced the next day to have awarded more than 15,000 votes to the president's nephew. In this way, the regime won a famous victory -- and with it the power to change whatever's left of Zimbabwe's constitution.
If South Africa, which could strangle its smaller neighbor's economy by switching off its electricity, had been tougher beforehand, this fraud might have been forestalled. If Mbeki had protested after the election, events also might have been different. Some brave Zimbabweans called for an African version of Ukraine's Orange Revolution. But as one opposition politician said wistfully, regional conditions provided no encouragement. Ukraine benefited from proxi- mity to pro-democratic Europe. But Zimbabwe's democratic neighbor sent the opposite signal. After the election was stolen, the head of the South African observer mission heaped praise on the process, declaring that the outcome reflected "the free will of the people of Zimbabwe" and that "the political climate was conducive for elections to take place."
Zimbabwe isn't the only place where Mbeki has been disappointing. On New Year's Day he visited Sudan and addressed that country's government. If ever there was an opportunity for some peer-to-peer truth-telling, surely this was it: Sudan's Arab leaders are engaged in the systematic killing of ethnic Africans in the western province of Darfur. But Mbeki spoke understandingly of "the challenges facing the government," and reserved his toughest comments for the easy scapegoat of imperialism. "When these eminent representatives of British colonialism were not in Sudan, they were in South Africa, and vice versa, doing terrible things wherever they went," he lectured.
Mbeki is undoubtedly an able man -- thoughtful in conversation, workaholic in habit, a wizard in the dark arts of backroom politics. But he is a tragic figure: He personifies the flaw that his own New Partnership is intended to inhibit. Open and accountable government is desirable because it exposes leaders to criticism, obliges them to listen and so reduces the risk of blatantly bad policy. But Mbeki, who leads a democratic government but one without electable opponents, is no more willing to accept criticism than to dish it out. He surrounds himself with yes men and spits viciously at critics. He lacks the humility to admit errors, even when the consequences are plain for all to see.
Mbeki's error on Zimbabwe is almost as terrible as his earlier one on AIDS, when he opposed anti-retroviral treatment. Zimbabwe is the poster child for the emphasis on governance in the New Partnership for Africa's Development; it shows how bad government can take a promising society and ruin it. A country that was once a breadbasket for the region now depends on food aid; a country that once took in migrants now exports desperate people by the million. And yet Mbeki, the mastermind and guiding light of the New Partnership, will not speak out against this tragedy.