Getting Past Mugabe

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By Mark Bellamy and J. Stephen Morrison
From the Center for Strategic and International Studies
Saturday, June 21, 2008; 12:00 AM

The crisis in Zimbabwe is now at a critical stage. Government-instigated brutality is out of control. Regional and worldwide alarm over the brazen and increasingly unpredictable rule of Robert Mugabe is at an all-time high.

By any reckoning, free and fair presidential elections in Zimbabwe next week are impossible. Mugabe and his security chiefs have warned they will accept no outcome other than his "re-election." Adding a few more election observers or achieving a pause in pre-election violence will change little. Faced with Mugabe's ruthlessness, Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai may well decide in coming days to pull out of the race altogether.

The stakes are high. One of Africa's best economies is in ruins. Three million Zimbabweans have fled to neighboring states. According to U.N. estimates, more than 5 million Zimbabweans will need food aid by next January. As he tramples democracy and shreds the rule of law, Mugabe exports instability in a region where the U.S. has invested heavily to promote good government and economic development. The chaos in Zimbabwe poses an urgent test of Western and African resolve.

Thus far, neither the West nor Africa has risen to the challenge. The U.S. and few other governments have enacted targeted sanctions on the Mugabe regime, provided substantial humanitarian relief and assisted civil organizations. Yet these ad hoc measures have not been enough to affect real change. Until recently most African leaders have either been indifferent or, in the case of South African President Thabo Mbeki, quietly complicit in enabling Mugabe's misrule.

It is now possible to transcend this indifference. Mugabe's unpopularity, his crumbling reputation as a liberation hero, the increasing savagery of his security chiefs, and the regional economic and social costs of Zimbabwe's meltdown -- all favor an external diplomatic push.

Change requires that the United States mount an intensive diplomatic campaign, one where the United States is a catalyst of international action. The purpose will be to rally international support for moving Zimbabwe rapidly into the post-Mugabe era. To be successful, this initiative must move forward quickly at a high level, targeting a few key audiences and goals.

A top priority has to be ending South Africa's patronage of Mugabe through diplomatic pressure that exploits growing regional dissatisfaction with Thabo Mbeki's leadership. Botswana's new President Ian Khama, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, Tanzanian President and African Union head Jakaya Kikwete Kikwete, as well as Mbeki's presumptive successor Jacob Zuma, all understand the urgent need to act on Zimbabwe. Other strong African voices, such as Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, are also now questioning South Africa's role in Zimbabwe and calling for change. Once the South African linchpin is removed, the other external props that sustain Mugabe -- Angola, Namibia, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, and China -- will cease to matter.

The Bush administration should quickly designate an envoy, a distinguished former official or public figure, to lead its efforts. It should help the envoy assemble a small team of prominent international figures from Africa, Europe, and the Commonwealth to travel to southern Africa for intensive consultations on ending the crisis in Zimbabwe. That team will need to be in the region for an extended period. Lacking internal consensus, neither the United Nations nor the African Union can mount such a mission. From its position in the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. should work in New York and in African capitals to demand more African involvement in solving the crisis in Zimbabwe.

The U.S. effort should be organized around four pillars.

First, it should create a shared consensus that Mugabe must leave office. This is the sine qua non to any solution. Restoring democracy, respecting human rights and rebuilding a shattered society and economy should be the highest priorities. These steps cannot begin until Mugabe has left the scene.

Second, it should create a shared determination to contain Mugabe's chief lieutenants. As Mugabe exits, some senior security officials may be tempted to replace him. Beginning with southern African states, support must be summoned for possible deployment of a modest African Union or U.N.-authorized monitoring force. Meanwhile, the Bush administration should disclose publicly details of the extensive corruption surrounding Mugabe's inner circle.

Third, it should press for resumed negotiations on constitutional reform, cut short by Mugabe last year, and for an early date for new presidential elections. Zimbabweans themselves will be quick to address these imperatives once Mugabe is gone. Freed of current threats, they are capable of establishing a workable framework for a democratic transition.

Last, if should accelerate international planning and support to rebuild Zimbabwe's shattered economic and social infrastructure. The United States and other donors should deploy credible, coordinated pledges of economic assistance to reinforce the diplomatic push to ease Mugabe out.

The Zimbabwean tragedy may continue beyond the Bush administration, but that is not a foregone conclusion. The United States has nothing to lose by investing in a bold diplomatic initiative to fix one of the world's worst man-made humanitarian disasters. What better legacy could George Bush leave in Africa than to close out this terrible chapter of tyranny and restore to a nation its lost freedoms?

Mark Bellamy is a former U.S. ambassador to Kenya and a senior fellow in residence for the Africa Program and the International Security Program at CSIS. J. Stephen Morrison is executive director of the HIV/AIDS Task Force and director of the Africa Program at CSIS.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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