Africans turn up heat on Mugabe

The Zimbabwean leader is in China this week seeking loans because South Africa is attaching strings to aid.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After standing by their man for years, a growing number of Africans are pushing Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to change his ways.

The shift in attitude, if it lasts, could mark a new period in Zimbabwe's ongoing crisis - one that tilts the situation toward resolution, thus removing a big blot on Africa's global reputation and helping free Zimbabweans from authoritarianism, soaring inflation, increasing poverty, and hunger.

• Zimbabwe has asked regional powerhouse South Africa for a loan of up to $1 billion for fuel, food, and other scarce essentials, and to help prevent it from losing backing from international lenders. South Africa is reportedly considering the loan, but with significant conditions that would require Zimbabwe to embark on economic and political reforms. The tougher response is seen as a small but significant shift away from South Africa's "quiet diplomacy" approach to its northern neighbor.

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• A new United Nations report, written by an African, blasts Mr. Mugabe's Operation Restore Order, which Mugabe says was designed to clean up urban areas but opposition parties say was simply strong-arm politics. The UN calls the recent demolition of thousands of homes and shops a "disastrous venture" that has left 700,000 homeless.

• Prominent voices are speaking out. Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya said last week of Mugabe: "This is only about power - and using what issues you think will keep yourself in power."

Such developments signal a shift in Africans' view of Mugabe, says Chris Maroleng of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. No more is there a continental debate over "the nature of the crisis" - about whether Mugabe is a hero who freed his nation from white colonial rule or the prime example of bad governance in Africa. Rather, he says, "We are beginning to actually address the crisis itself - to figure out a way forward." That, he adds, "is the most heartening thing about the period we're in."

The African view of the issue is crucial, observers say. Africans - not outside powers - are most likely to be the ones who defuse the Zimbabwe time-bomb.

Mr. Mbeki is one of the issue's biggest players. In recent years, his back-room diplomacy has apparently done little to move the octogenarian Mugabe to reverse course. But the loan is a new opportunity to influence the man who has led Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 and who, in 2000, initiated mass seizure of white farms, which began the economic decline of what had been the breadbasket of Southern Africa. Zimbabwe now risks being expelled from the International Monetary Fund because of its delinquency on nearly $300 million in loans.

Now Mbeki can use the loan "as a lever to force Mugabe to engage in negotiations" with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, says Mr. Maroleng.

One reason Mbeki may want to attach conditions: Zimbabwe's precipitous decline is impeding Mbeki's efforts to clean up Africa's image through things like the New Partnership for Africa's Development and its focus on good governance. South Africa's conditions may be why Mugabe was expected to ask Chinese President Hu Jintao for a similarly large loan on his current trip to Beijing.

The UN report, released last week, was authored by Anna Tibaijuka, the head of the world body's Habitat agency, who is from Tanzania. The fact that it comes from an African - and was endorsed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is from Ghana - may give it added weight on the continent.

Without naming names, the report says Zimbabwean officials broke international law in carrying out the operation. It urges prosecution of the "architects of the operation," which "caused large sections of [the] population serious suffering" and virtually "wiped out" the country's informal economy, which accounted for 40 percent of the nation's economic activity.

Zimbabwe's foreign minister, Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, retorted that it's "definitely false" that the government broke laws, further complaining about the report's "vastly judgmental language, which clearly demonstrates its inbuilt bias against the operation."

While criticism of Mugabe may be growing among Africans, it's still relatively tame. In dealing with such issues, there's an inherent caution that emanates from the African cultural imperative to maintain dignity and unity among all members of a community - somewhat similar to the Asian desire to "save face."

"The one bad thing [Mbeki] could do is to close the doors" to dialogue and cooperation with Mugabe, Ms. Maathai said at a meeting with foreign reporters last week, in a statement that jibes with the African ethos.

There's no doubt Mugabe is still seen as a revolutionary hero who ejected a brutal white colonial regime. Unlike most African leaders, he has also aggressively tackled the race-charged issue of land reform and continued white dominance over his economy.

But he may have gone too far. Besides the troubles caused by Operation Restore Order, unemployment now hovers at about 70 percent. Inflation hit 164 percent in June, one of the highest rates in the world. The UN says 4 million of the country's 12 million people are verging on starvation. Fuel is so scarce that few cars reportedly ply the streets of Harare, the normally bustling capital. Even Air Zimbabwe, the national airline, recently had to cancel many flights because of lack of fuel.

Wire services were used in this report.

Key points from UN report

• Zimbabwe must immediately halt any further demolitions of homes and informal businesses.

• The government must develop humanitarian efforts for the poor that provides security for "income-generating activities in a regulated and enabling environment."

• It must hold those accountable who carried out the destruction.

• It must pay compensation to those whose property was unlawfully destroyed.

• The International community should immediately mobilize with reconstruction efforts to help avert further suffering.

Source: United Nations

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