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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 Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 25, 2005


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

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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.

• 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.