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The Monitor's View

Zimbabwe's neighborhood

The best hope for ousting dictator Robert Mugabe is pressure from Zimbabwe's neighbors.

June 25, 2008



Zimbabwe's hounded opposition can no longer protect itself from the attack dogs of dictator Robert Mugabe on its own. This destitute country needs the world's help in ending the illegitimate rule of one of Africa's last strongmen.

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Zimbabwe hasn't gotten much so far. But on Monday, the UN Security Council condemned the "campaign of violence" that was unleashed to influence a runoff presidential election slated for Friday.

More than 85 political opponents have died at the hands of Mr. Mugabe's security forces, and thousands have been injured and driven from their homes. The brutality is so widespread that opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of the race June 22 and sent an SOS to the United Nations and African leaders to help restore conditions for free and fair elections.

The Security Council's nonbinding statement was unusual because it blamed the Zimbabwe government, and because all 15 members backed it. China and Russia went along, as did South Africa, which previously blocked the crisis in Zimbabwe from the agenda.

This rare unanimity may mean that stronger UN action is possible, rather than the chance of individual countries imposing their own sanctions or forming a coalition for military action, as with Iraq. Still, to give the UN some teeth is like pulling teeth.

Mugabe is likely to view the council's statement as no more than a minor annoyance. Nothing will remove him from his 28-year rule but God, he has stated. Not the ballot box (where he polled second to Mr. Tsvangirai in the first round of elections in March). Not threats from the West.

If anything were to convince him that his time is up, it would be pressure from the 'hood, and in particular, South Africa. It supplies electricity to Zimbabwe at a huge discount and provides vital port access. (In the late 1970s, white South Africa cut off military and economic aid to its then-white-ruled neighbor and helped usher in majority rule there.)

But South African President Thabo Mbeki, the region's designated mediator with Mugabe, has been more of an enabler than honest broker.

He's been unwilling to denounce a fellow liberator from white rule. And while he's no friend of Mugabe's, he's less of one to Tsvangirai, who's a labor-union man. Unions pose a serious challenge to Mr. Mbeki.

The group of southern African countries that includes Zimbabwe has tolerated Mbeki's "quiet" diplomacy, but that's thankfully changing. Hyperinflation and hunger are sending millions of Zimbabweans into their countries. Now several of these leaders are speaking out – not just from self-interest, but also on moral grounds.

But regional pressure doesn't always work. In Southeast Asia, governments there – not all democratic – have been unable to unify against Burma (Myanmar).

Much of Africa, though, is slowly coming together around democracy and pragmatism. Nations there – sometimes pushed by the West – have cooperated to solve serious problems in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, and most recently, Kenya.

The call now is for tougher sanctions on Zimbabwe's elite. That may help, but the world should work even harder to encourage African leaders – particularly Zimbabwe's neighbors – to speak and act together against this tyrant.

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