AUSTIN, TEXAS — Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe combines the worst aspects of cold war and war on terror tyranny.
Think of Mr. Mugabe as an African Slobodan Milosevic. When the cold war closed down, Mr. Milosevic morphed from Yugoslav communist to Serb fascist. As time passed in southern Africa, shape-shifting Mugabe adjusted his schtick, moving from Marx-spouting revolutionary to kleptocratic tribal dictator. Both thugs are ethnic cleansers and cynical thieves who murder rivals, silence the press, and brutally intimidate domestic opposition.
There is a major difference: Milosevic is under arrest, while Mugabe continues to destroy a once wealthy nation, as he hides behind a slick PR campaign that coopts and corrupts classic "human rights" themes.
Mugabe can give Milosevic - and, for that matter, Russia's Vladimir Putin - lessons in rigging elections. On March 31, Mugabe stole his third election in five years, making Zimbabwe the world's current leader in charade democracy.
Mugabe and his thugs tried to steal the last one quietly. As elections approached, Mugabe began denying foreign reporters entry visas. He imposed a law that made "unauthorized demonstrations" a felony punishable by up to 20 years in jail - a law aimed at his democratic opponents in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). And then there's the food weapon. Mugabe's government controls Zimbabwe's food supplies. Cooperate, and you get your loaf of bread. Oppose Mugabe, and food's denied.
Ah, but those pesky priests who won't shut up. Mugabe has had to threaten church leaders he deems responsible for "encouraging" street protests. Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube - a major domestic critic of Mugabe and his dictatorship - has been a special target.
Ncube predicted last month's election would be rigged, and Ncube was right. The "final tally" gave Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) 78 seats and the MDC 41. There's no question Mugabe committed mass fraud - and the MDC has refused to accept the results.
Mugabe may get away with it, breaking the democratic pulse surging through Afghanistan, Ukraine, Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon, and testing the Bush administration's "pro-democracy" doctrine. The man is ruthless, and in the past ruthless has worked. Though Mugabe's ethnic cleansing of the minority Ndebele in the early 1980s brought extensive criticism, criticism never became international opposition to his regime. Whenever international outrage builds, Mugabe trots out two themes that have been political trumps for too many African tyrants: "combating colonialism" and "fighting racism." This mantra stymies a fossil segment of the "human rights left" - a crowd that railed against Milosevic. Mugabe also appears to have another ace in the hole - South Africa's Thabo Mbeki has not played pro-democracy Poland to the Zimbabwe democrats' would-be Ukraine. In fact, Mr. Mbeki looks increasingly weak, ineffectual, and churlish - a man who knows he stands in Nelson Mandela's shadow and resents it. Mbeki declared Zimbabwe's elections "free and fair" before the vote. A few commentators conclude this is Mbeki and Mugabe acting out a senescent form of "freedom fighter" solidarity, and it may be just that, another mid-20th-century political relic thwarting 21st-century democratic change.
Still, international criticism is mounting - if Kyrgyzstan can rally for freedom, why not Zimbabwe? What can be done to support the democrats? Any effective military action or political-economic sanctions regimen requires South African cooperation, and Mbeki looks as if he's been bought off.
The priests, however, haven't been coopted. Pope John Paul II's death has kept Mugabe's electoral fraud out of the news cycle, but there is a "John Paul" option that could benefit peaceful change throughout sub-Sahran Africa. The Polish Pope John Paul inspired Eastern European resistance to communism and inspired billions with his spiritual and moral leadership. An African pope could do the same for African democrats.
There are signals that this could happen. French Cardinal Bernard Panafieu, when asked about electing a "third world" pope, replied, "Everything is possible."
An African pope would change the political dynamics in sub-Saharan Africa, and put dictators like Mugabe under insistent global scrutiny - the first step to putting them all in jail.
• Austin Bay, a novelist and retired US Army Reserve colonel, is a contributing editor to FYEO, an Internet foreign affairs newsletter. ©2005 Creators Syndicate, Inc.