ROBERT MUGABE, Zimbabwe's 80-year-old dictator, refers to the U.S. secretary of state as a "girl" who ought to know that "the white man is not a friend." He also regards Zimbabwe's long-suffering people as children who shouldn't be trusted with a say in their own country. He rigged elections in 2000 and 2002. The parliamentary election scheduled for March 31 looks likely to be no better.
In the run-up to next month's vote, Mr. Mugabe has prevented the opposition party from advertising, restricted its meetings, pressed fresh treason charges against its leader and directed militias to intimidate its organizers. Mr. Mugabe also has used food shortages as a political weapon, denying relief to opponents. He has harassed election monitoring groups, detained some of the few remaining independent journalists and seized control of the electoral commission. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the veteran South African anti-apartheid campaigner, has called the Mugabe dictatorship a "huge blot" on Africa. In response, a Mugabe henchman accuses the archbishop of being in thrall to the "false gods, Tony Blair and George Bush."
The question is whether the rest of Africa is going to allow Zimbabwe's aging racist to equate political freedom with colonial repression. The continent's two powerhouses, South Africa and Nigeria, are both democratic and are trying to spread democratic values across the continent. According to Freedom House, 32 African countries are free or partly free; 16 are classified as unfree. The South Africans and Nigerians scored a victory recently by leading a continent-wide denunciation of an undemocratic succession in the West African state of Togo. Their firmness is having an effect: Togo's regime has promised an election within 60 days, as called for in its constitution.
Taking on Zimbabwe, a country of 13 million, or more than double Togo's 5 million, is tougher. But Mr. Mugabe is mocking Africa's talk of democracy so openly that the continent's leaders, notably South African President Thabo Mbeki, must not duck the challenge. A forceful denunciation of Mr. Mugabe's repression, coupled with the threat of sanctions, might quickly force the dictator to change; Zimbabwe is landlocked and depends on South Africa economically. The rewards to democratic Africa for tough action would be substantial. The rich world is debating a possible scaling up of development aid this year. The money is more likely to flow if Africans show the courage to address their most obvious shortcomings.