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Why Mugabe attracts Africans and repels the West

As Africa applauds its oldest ruling freedom fighter, Zimbabwe teeters on economic ruin.

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In a move aimed at demobilizing the opposition's urban support and nipping in the bud a Ukrainian-style "orange revolution," the Mugabe government ordered "operation Murambatsvina" (Drive Out the Filth) – a draconian clearance of what it termed "illegal shelters" in Harare and other cities – which a United Nations report estimates has destroyed the homes and livelihoods of 700,000 Zimbabweans and negatively affected 2.4 million more.

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Apart from the economic cost of Zimbabwe's meltdown on the region, Mugabe's real impact on Africa is ideological. The West has urged South Africa to break rank with states that back Mugabe and to adopt a forceful stance against Harare. At the same time, South Africa's ruling elite fear that, owing to Mugabe's nationalist credentials and popularity, public condemnation of Harare would exacerbate South Africa's internal divisions over President Thabo Mbeki's successor and lead to isolation on the continent.

Pretoria's behind-the-curtains quiet diplomacy talks between Zimbabwe's ruling party and the opposition from 2000 to 2004 yielded a new constitutional draft for Zimbabwe. But the initiative was stillborn because Pretoria lacked the muscle to enforce it. Moreover, in a continent where age matters, the 65-year-old Mr. Mbeki has an uphill task getting octogenarian Mugabe to take him seriously.

Issues of sovereignty have also come into play. Pretoria's effort to use economic leverage by offering Zimbabwe a $500 million credit line to pay the International Monetary Fund debt in return for governance reforms backfired. Zimbabwe rejected the offer and paid its own debt in February 2006.

Mugabe's status as elder statesman and anticolonialist hero has ensured unwavering regional support. An extraordinary SADC summit in March 2007 expressed "solidarity" with Mugabe, but appointed Mbeki as mediator between Zimbabwe's ruling party and the opposition. Zambia's president, Levy Mwanawasa, the new chair of SADC who previously described Zimbabwe as a "sinking Titanic," made a U-turn, declaring that the country's problems were "exaggerated."

SADC's meeting last month resolved to bail Zimbabwe out of its economic woes and endorse Mbeki's mediation, but this enterprise has no breathing chance unless Africa and the West end the face-off.

Moreover, the trial of Liberia's warlord, Charles Taylor, in 2006 for crimes against humanity as part of the West's war on impunity in Africa has removed guarantees for safe retirement, thus diminishing the chance of Mugabe's exiting. He is running in the 2008 elections.

The face-off has fostered an international climate hostile to Zimbabwe's economic recovery. Although Harare exited the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2003, it is important that the CHGOM in November provides an opportunity to bring Zimbabwe back onto its agenda. Portugal, now holding the EU presidency, must stay the course regarding its decision to invite Zimbabwe to the Euro-Africa summit in December. This event provides a window to revive the ties between the two continents in ways that can usefully impact Zimbabwe.

Mugabe's liberation colleagues, such as Namibia's Sam Nujoma and Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda should work with Europe's new leadership – Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy – and other influential global elders to support the SADC mediation to deliver an economic recovery plan and a democratic constitution to ensure a level playing field in the 2008 polls.

Dr. Peter Kagwanja is acting executive director of the Democracy and Governance Program at the Human Science Research Council in Pretoria and is president of the Africa Policy Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.