NEW YORK — AS the world's collective attention remains rightly on the US-led war in Iraq and the effort to oust Saddam Hussein, another brutal dictator thousands of miles away continues to inflict unprecedented violence and terror upon his own people, largely under the global radar. Two days of national strikes organized last month by Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) protesting dictator Robert Mugabe's regime have resulted in hundreds of arrests, at least one death, and allegations of widespread torture by police and government forces.
Mr. Mugabe's own day of reckoning, however, may be near. The opposition MDC kept two critical seats in Zimbabwe's parliament in by-elections last weekend, further solidifying its control of the capital, where it holds all 17 seats. The election results came a day before the expiration of an opposition ultimatum calling on the government to address its human rights abuses and restore such democratic institutions as freedom of the press. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai called the developments a "final push for freedom."
Mugabe, who recently warned that those who play with fire "will not only be burnt but consumed," has never been one to mince words. A communist-cum-African-populist, his tenor as the president for the past 23 years has been nothing short of a reign of terror for those outside his one-party system. The erratic African president drew further attention to himself in the aftermath of the most recent crackdown by making a bizarre comparison of his leadership style to that of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
Mugabe rules by fear. At the end of Zimbabwe's second chimurenga, or uprising against white rule in 1980, he made apt use of his North Korean-trained 5th Brigade to wipe out thousands of Ndebele minorities rebelling in the southwest corner of Zimbabwe - an act many refer to as genocide. The uprising of the Ndebele and their subsequent slaughter can be likened to the Iraqi crackdown on southern Shiite Muslims following the first Gulf War in 1991.
Press restrictions implemented by Mugabe after what Western officials say was a staged reelection last year put Zimbabwe on par with Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. Following last month's strikes, foreign media and human rights groups, though tightly monitored by the regime, filed reports of broken limbs, sexual assault, and electric torture at a rate that should set off international alarm. Mugabe's land-reform program has rendered what was once a surplus provider of maize into a welfare state largely dependent on government-distributed international food aid. Opposition groups charge that their members are denied food because of their refusal to support the regime.
While Zimbabwe's suspension from the British Commonwealth and the current travel ban on top Zimbabwean officials are a step in the right direction, little has been done to stop the ongoing violence.
As the US-led coalition moves forward to liberate the Iraqi people, let us not forget President Bush's recent reprimand of the UN for its failure to take action in places like Bosnia and Rwanda. If the fire in Zimbabwe is allowed to continue to burn unattended, it is the international community that may once again be consumed.
• Robert Nolan, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe, is the online editor at the Foreign Policy Association.