Western donors have deplored moves by President Frederick Chiluba to prevent his rivals from taking part in October elections in Zambia. But the country's neighbors are pursuing a foreign policy of quiet, if not silent, diplomacy.
Some Western donors have cut off aid in protest. But a series of high-level approaches to Zambia by the 12-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) have done nothing to persuade Mr. Chiluba to reverse his undemocratic moves.
Unlike the East African countries that have taken a hard line on the coup in Burundi and clamped on tough economic sanctions, SADC is meekly pursuing contacts with Zambia. Failure to take strong action against Chiluba's government is causing growing concerns of a worst-case scenario: political instability and a slide into economic ruin.
"Zambia is quietly slipping into the bog and chaos. But no one is doing anything because it is not dramatic like Nigeria or Burundi," says a SADC diplomat based in Lusaka, Zambia, the capital. "Everyone is worried, but no one is really doing something about it. Africans don't like confrontation; they like the fraternal approach. But it's not working.
"The region has stabilized," the diplomat adds. "There's a fair degree of consensus that we're moving in a certain direction - economic development and democracy. We cannot afford to have any member drop off. We need everything to remain stable."
Foreign donors, including Britain, the United States, the Netherlands, and several Scandinavian countries, threatened to freeze aid after the Zambian parliament passed constitutional amendments in May. The amendments disqualify as presidential candidates traditional chiefs, people who lived abroad at any time during the past 20 years, or anyone who is not at least a second-generation Zambian.
This rules out former President Kenneth Kaunda, whose 27-year reign Chiluba ended in the country's first democratic elections in 1991. Mr. Kaunda's parents were immigrants from neighboring Malawi.
Chiluba had worried Kaunda would stage a comeback because of the country's economic crisis. Western diplomats say his government suffers from corruption and mismanagement. Austerity measures imposed in exchange for aid from international donors have resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, free education, and food subsidies.
Further concern has been raised by Western diplomats over a charge of treason against eight political opponents of the government, including senior aides to Kaunda.
Western diplomats say the reversal of democratic trends in Zambia, which was among the first countries in southern Africa to adopt multiparty rule, has distressed donors already worried about government corruption and rampant drug and car smuggling that appears to have high-level government involvement.
SADC's passivity is in sharp contrast to 1994. In that year its members, including South Africa, threatened to intervene in Lesotho after a palace coup there, and in Mozambique after former rebel leader Afonso Dhlakama initially rejected his defeat in an election.
Silence from SADC on Zambia follows the backing down of South Africa from its once-tough stance against Nigeria's repressive military regime last year. South Africa failed to muster support from other African countries.
As the richest and most powerful member, South Africa is the logical country to take the lead in a SADC action against Zambia. But President Nelson Mandela's African National Congress ruling party is loath to be seen as interfering in its neighbor.
The ANC was sheltered in Zambia under former President Kaunda for many years during the time it was being repressed by the apartheid government in South Africa.
South African Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo told the Monitor recently that he lamented the "tragedy" in Zambia but that "it is up to the chairman of SADC to respond. South Africa is not a global power, nor does it seek to be a dominating force in the region. We have made it clear we see ourselves as a nation among equals in the sub-region."
But no other SADC member has the clout of South Africa.
Diplomats say that SADC's chairman, Botswana President Quett Masire, was crudely rebuffed by the Zambian government during an approach a couple of months ago. Officials from Tanzania and Zimbabwe did no better. Meetings of regional ministers have yielded bland statements on Zambia - and are often snubbed by Chiluba himself.
Meanwhile, the situation in Zambia is deteriorating further, with Kaunda living under constant threat of imprisonment for acts of civil disobedience.
The big worry now is that donor disgust will lead to a cutoff of not only bilateral aid but also aid from institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, crushing Zambia's fragile economy.
"The irony is that the problem arose partly because Chiluba was 'good' by stringently sticking to IMF and World Bank demands for economic reform. Maybe [Zambia] embarked on [reform] too quickly," one diplomat says.