Zimbabwe's Bitter End

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

WHEN ZIMBABWEAN strongman Robert Mugabe signed a deal to share power with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai last month, we were skeptical that it would end the country's crisis. At best, we hoped, it would stop Mr. Mugabe's murderous campaign against opposition activists and permit international relief agencies to deliver food to the starving.

As it turns out, even those modest gains have not been realized. Violent attacks on the opposition continue, and aid groups have been hamstrung by the freezing of their bank accounts. Desperate Zimbabweans, including a growing number of children, continue to pour out of the country as refugees. Inside, the economy has utterly collapsed: Inflation was calculated at 231 million percent early this month and was headed toward the billions. The United Nations is guessing that 5 million of Zimbabwe's remaining 9 million residents will soon need food handouts to avoid mass starvation.

Still, the 84-year-old Mr. Mugabe refuses to yield even the share of power he promised to give up -- and African leaders continue to tolerate and enable him. Though he promised to give up half the ministries to the opposition in a new government, Mr. Mugabe unilaterally named his own slate to all of the most important cabinet positions, including the ministries of defense and home affairs, which govern the army and police. He has left only the finance ministry for Mr. Tsvangirai -- and that's because he expects the opposition to persuade Western governments to resume aid to the country and thus prevent the collapse of his regime. Mr. Tsvangirai has reduced his demands to one: that the opposition control home affairs and the police, which might allow it to curtail political violence. Mr. Mugabe refused, causing the breakdown of the latest mediation effort by former South African president Thabo Mbeki.

Mr. Mbeki is part of the problem; he has been sympathetic all along to Mr. Mugabe's attempt to remain in power despite his defeat in an election in March. The 14-member Southern African Development Community, which appointed Mr. Mbeki, is now trying to mediate through a six-country committee. But it would be unwise for Mr. Tsvangirai, who refused to attend the first day of the talks, to compromise further -- or for aid donors to fund a facade. It's not likely that Mr. Mugabe's regime can survive much longer in a country that has ceased to function. Unless he is willing to peacefully cede power, neither African leaders nor Western donors should take further action to prop him up.

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