CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Robert Mugabe, the much reviled president of Zimbabwe, has at last been barred from this weekend's Commonwealth summit.
Doing so strengthens the political and moral relevance of the group of 54 nations (Britain and its former dominions and colonies, nearly all of which are African). Symbolically, doing so also undercuts Mr. Mugabe's legitimacy, and strengthens the forces favoring regime change in Zimbabwe.
Excluding Mugabe recognizes the great harm he has wreaked on his own people, on southern Africa, on human rights, and on the image and meaning of democracy in the Commonwealth and in Africa. The decision to prevent Zimbabwe's participation in the summit reflects pressure put on President Olusegun Obasanjo, the summit's host, by Britain and Australia. His decision has prevented a boycott of the meeting by Queen Elizabeth and the heads of government in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and several other Pacific nations, and thus enabled the Commonwealth to continue to function as a critical assembly of English-speaking countries across the globe.
The decision also delivered a rebuke to President Thabo Mbeki, Mugabe's most outspoken defender and his main protector in the Commonwealth, and could presage Zimbabwe's complete ouster from the club. Mr. Mbeki has tried to pit African members of the Commonwealth against non-African members, but that battle has now been lost. For the past 18 months, Zimbabwe's membership has been suspended, but that suspension hardly changed Mugabe's methods at home.
Under Mugabe's autocratic leadership from 1980 until the late 1990s, Zimbabwe boasted a prosperous economy based on agriculture and mining; excellent race relations between the 12-million strong African majority and 100,000 whites, a handful of whom dominated the cultivation of commercial crops and employed 400,000 African farm workers; domestic peace; a strong judiciary; and a political system that Mugabe controlled but that observed most of the usual democratic norms.
Since 1998, because of Mugabe's increasingly corrupt and capricious rule, however, his dispatch of 11,000 soldiers into the Congo, and attacks on the commercial farming mainstay of the country, Zimbabwe's economy has collapsed. About half of all Zimbabweans now go hungry, and widespread starvation is likely in the months to come because of the destruction of farming incentives and the lack of gasoline and diesel fuels. Annual inflation is running about 900 percent, the country has exhausted almost all of its foreign-exchange reserves, 80 percent of adult Zimbabweans are out of work, AIDS is devouring the working class and driving life expectations to under 35 years, hospitals and schools no longer function, and the government regularly issues bizarre decrees that only worsen the economic and financial mess.
Mugabe allegedly rigged the parliamentary elections of 2000 (which his party nevertheless only won narrowly) and last year's presidential poll.He has discharged a raft of independent and honest judges and replaced them with hacks. His henchmen bombed and then recently shut down the nation's only independent daily newspaper. There are no independent TV or radio stations.
Nearly 300 political opponents have been killed this year, and their followers deprived of internationally donated food. The leader of the main opposition party is being tried on a trumped-up charge of treason, mainly for contesting the presidential election against Mugabe.
Regime change could be accomplished with ease - with African and international effort.
President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have asked Mbeki to abandon several years of quiet diplomacy and constructive engagement and forthrightly to condemn Mugabe and the harm that he has inflicted on his people and on Africa's image.
There are a number of things Mbeki could do besides exerting his moral authority. South Africa could cut off neighboring Zimbabwe's access to electric power and imported petroleum. Mbeki could delegitimize Mugabe (as has the Commonwealth) by ousting Zimbabwe from the Southern African Development Community, or from the African Union, and by speaking out. He could intervene militarily - and there are precedents for doing so in Africa, such as Tanzania invading Uganda in 1979 to oust Idi Amin, or the West African military intervention in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s to put down insurgencies.
But Mbeki refuses to chastise his fellow African head of state. Today, Zimbabwe's main exports are the hordes of people fleeing across borders to neighboring countries. Millions now work or try to work illegally in South Africa or Botswana. The economic and political prospects of South Africa itself are thus undermined by Mbeki's inexplicable refusal to act.
The Commonwealth has a chance to stiffen Mbeki's resolve, and to promise material and military support if South Africa removes Mugabe, averts further chaos, and thus helps to return Zimbabwe to democratic rule. Respect for Africa, assistance from the G-8 nations and the Commonwealth, and the future of its peoples await positive decisions in Abuja.
• Robert I. Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation and director of the intrastate conflict program at the Belfer Center at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.