An Africa Promise With a Taint

The Organization of Africa Unity head, Zimbabwe's Mugabe, extols a new virtue. His critics cite graft

The words at the meeting of African leaders were noble: Dictatorships were out, and accountable leadership was in. But the man heading the summit set a dubious example.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe assumed the chair of the Organization of Africa Unity (OAU) earlier this month, extolling a new Africa. But for his critics, he has evolved into a caricature of a despot during his 17-year monopoly on power, hardly an example for the rest of the continent.

A series of scandals in recent months has sullied Mr. Mugabe's already tarnished reputation, feeding an unprecedented revolt within his own ZANU-PF party, which is growing outspoken in pointing out abuses of power.

Mugabe is increasingly resembling Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of former Zaire who was recently ousted, says political scientist John Makumbe at the University of Zimbabwe. "He's essentially becoming isolated. This makes him more dangerous and less tolerant," he says.

He should know. Professor Makumbe has had threats against his life and has seen in his rearview mirror the headlights of the cars of security forces known for allegedly killing critics in "accidents."

Independent Zimbabwe was born from what used to be Rhodesia on April 18, 1980, after a long guerrilla struggle. The end of white-minority rule harbored a promise of democracy and peace.

Over the years Mugabe flirted with socialism, and then halfheartedly with elections, which were seen as far from fair and open. Opposition parties are often stymied by harassment and lack of funds.

Adding to a growing public perception that Mugabe's inner circle is abusing power is a recent series of sleazy deals seen to benefit the elite alone. Mugabe's extravagant recent wedding to his former secretary and the expensive mansions built for party officials have helped highlight the gap in wealth, while the potentially rich economy falters.

In one deal, the Cabinet reversed a decision by the government's tender board to award a multimillion-dollar contract to Aeroports de Paris to build a new international airport. It then gave the contract to Mugabe's nephew, Leo Mugabe, and an obscure Cypriot partner, Air Harbour Technology.

Leo Mugabe turned up in another controversy earlier this year when the first private cellular telephone license was awarded to a consortium including him and a foreign firm, Telecel. The award disregarded recommendations by the tender board for another company, Econet.

Another incident involved a letter of intent signed with a Malaysian company, YTL, for a thermal power station, done behind the backs of the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority.

Perhaps most damaging to the state's image were recent revelations that $45 million set aside for casualties of the liberation war had been diverted to senior party officials.

Critics look sadly upon Mugabe's increased impunity, contrasting it with the rest of southern Africa, where the trend has been to open up political systems to other parties. Mozambique, Namibia, Mauritius, Botswana, and South Africa have, to varying degrees, embraced pluralism and accountability.

South Africa - where white apartheid rule was swept away in 1994 and President Nelson Mandela rules with moral authority - has served to inspire growing numbers of ZANU-PF officials to question official misdeeds.

No one is more vocal than parliamentarian Margaret Dongo, a former liberation fighter who leads the new Zimbabwe Movement for Independent Electoral Candidates. She exposed the war-compensation scandal and won support from 100 other ZANU-PF legislators in doing so.

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