Zimbabwe — One of Africa’s worst political and humanitarian crises presents a window of opportunity to incoming U.S. President Barack Obama to find a resolution where so many others have failed.
In December the outgoing Bush administration helpfully wiped the slate clean on Zimbabwe when Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer ended U.S. support for the power-sharing deal between President Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Frazer opened the way for a long-overdue reappraisal of U.S. policy by the incoming administration toward one of Africa’s most vexing problems.
The U.S. had previously pledged to support the power-sharing agreement between Mugabe and both wings of the MDC that was signed on Sept. 15. But Mugabe repeatedly reneged on his side of the bargain to allow an equitable division of cabinet posts with Tsvangirai’s MDC. Further, Mugabe’s regime persisted in extra-legal abductions and torture of government critics.
Mugabe’s rambling speech in December when he boasted that “Zimbabwe is mine, mine, mine,” and that cholera had been “arrested,” convinced the U.S., Frazer said, that Mugabe had finally “lost it” and was “out of touch with reality."
The U.S. was skeptical about the deal in the first place because, it believed, it allowed Mugabe to continue sabotaging the economy with populist measures such as the seizure of productive white-owned farms and profligate printing of money. The U.S. said it would use its voting powers in multilateral lending bodies such as the International Monetary Fund to ensure Mugabe did not benefit from debt cancellation. This was in line with the Zimbabwe Democracy and Recovery Act, which Congress passed in December 2001 to impose targeted sanctions on Mugabe and his ruling clique in response to the Harare regime’s state-sponsored electoral violence.
Not only will the Obama government need to adopt a new response to Mugabe’s refusal to change his autocratic ways, it must also find a fresh way to deal with the southern African region’s continuing backing for the 84-year-old Zimbabwean leader, even though he clearly lacks popular support and breaks the law.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has pressed Tsvangirai to join the government of national unity formed by Mugabe, as if the opposition leader were the problem and not Mugabe. The regional group abdicated its responsibility to be a fair mediator when it looked the other way as Zimbabwean police carried out arbitrary detentions and ignored court orders.
SADC leaders have also blithely ignored a ruling by the organization’s own legal tribunal in Namibia that Mugabe’s government should stop interfering with the operations of 78 white commercial farmers — the remaining rump of the 4,000 before the 2,000 farm seizures — who appealed to the regional court when Zimbabwe’s own judicial system proved unable to provide relief.
Mugabe’s new attorney general ignored the regional ruling and instructed that prosecutions should proceed against those remaining on their farms, some of whom have been brutally assaulted by Mugabe’s followers.
These are all key issues of governance that the U.S. will need to address before the crisis in Zimbabwe impacts further on the region. Frazer warned SADC leaders that their credibility is on the line. Obama needs to convince them that their continued support for Mugabe will have a bad impact on them all.
The Bush administration had been reluctant to speak out against South African president Thabo Mbeki’s failure to bring sufficient pressure to bear on Mugabe. Bush said Mbeki was his “point-man” on Zimbabwe.
But Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” has been a manifest failure and following his ousting by his party, the African National Congress (ANC), Pretoria’s language on Zimbabwe has become more robust.
New ANC head Jacob Zuma has described the situation in Zimbabwe as “utterly untenable” and declared that Mugabe and his coterie can no longer be seen as the ANC’s “comrades," a stance that will mortify Harare’s sclerotic liberation aristocracy.
The view from diplomats in Harare is that Obama's Africa team must create new facts on the ground. It must point out that southern African leaders have cosseted Mugabe for too long. It must also persuade South Africa that its role at the United Nations in resisting firm measures against delinquent states such as Burma and Zimbabwe has proved unprincipled and unhelpful. It must point out that neither South Africa nor the regional bloc are adhering to the democratic guidelines set out in SADC’s own principles adopted in Mauritius in 2004.
As Zimbabwe faces an intensifying humanitarian disaster, a space has opened for deft U.S. diplomacy. While Bush has been applauded for increasing spending on Africa through his Millennium Goals Program and funding to combat HIV/AIDS, he was never a popular figure on the continent, especially as the Iraq war exposed contradictions in U.S. policy.
Obama, on the other hand, comes to power with a wide and enthusiastic following in Africa that expects to see new levels of engagement. Africa’s high hopes for one of its sons may be unrealistic in terms of what he can actually achieve. But he has a unique opportunity to spell out what principles guide U.S. policy in Africa and what he expects of allies such as South Africa, which have failed to uphold their own foreign policy commitments. Many here believe that a new firm line towards Mugabe is needed. No more searching for a way to share power with a dictator who refuses to play fair. No more trying to find a “dignified exit” for a tyrant who is only interested in clinging to power at all costs.
What is needed most is strong leadership, and Obama is well-placed to provide that.