The president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, is no Idi Amin. Rather, the man who overthrew white rule in his nation and has run it for 20 years has made a few notable accomplishments, such as reducing illiteracy and infant mortality.
But by the way Mugabe's been driving Zimbabwe toward racial and political violence in order to win a parliamentary election, his actions look more and more like those of the former despot of Uganda.
Zimbabwe is no ordinary African nation possibly heading for yet another civil war. Its economic decline and rising racial tensions are seen by many as a potential path for South Africa. Mugabe was once a respected post-independence African leader, but now he's a model for anarchy. And his Army has shown it can easily meddle in another nation - it still keeps 11,000 soldiers in Congo's civil strife.
He has lost popular appeal and appears threatened. In February, he lost a referendum that would have confiscated white-owned farmlands. Black voters no longer blame the high unemployment on the 1 percent of the people who are white or the legacy of colonialism.
Rather, over half the nation's 12 million people blame Mugabe's corrupt one-party rule and economic mismanagement for making them worse off than they were in 1980, when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.
Mugabe has defied a court order and sent armed men to seize more than 800 white-owned farms in scenes similar to Uganda in 1972, when Idi Amin forced some 50,000 Ugandan Indians to flee and then took their land. The US and other nations have rightfully suspended aid for Zimbabwe's program of distributing land on a willing-seller, willing-buyer basis. The program, designed to correct historical imbalances, has itself benefited mainly Mugabe's political elite.
Faced with the first serious grass-roots opposition group in 20 years, Mugabe appears to be fomenting violence as a possible excuse for emergency rule. Already three people have died in political violence during the run-up to elections expected in the next few months.
It could be that Mugabe is using such dangerous tactics just to win the majority of votes that come from rural areas. But his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, has been a unifying figure as a former mineworker who promises clean government.
Perhaps other African nations and the West can do more to head off a tragedy that Africa doesn't need.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society