Western and African leaders at odds over Zimbabwe

Commonwealth representatives met in London yesterday to discuss sanctions.

Flipping between the local and foreign TV channels after Zimbabwe's elections last week, one may have wondered if the newscasters were discussing the same event. "We have been congratulated by all our African neighbors for our upstanding election," said the smiling host of Zimbabwe TV's national morning show.

A mere channel zap away, a British correspondent – her network barred from entering the country by the government – was standing at a sweltering border-crossing reading a list of severe polling irregularities, which, she stated, rendered the election unacceptable.

Most of the Western world has condemned Zimbabwe's recent election. The United States refuses to recognize the result; Denmark has closed its Embassy in Harare; Australia, Britain, and Canada skipped President Robert Mugabe's inauguration ceremony; and the European Union is discussing tougher sanctions on the regime.

Most of the governments of this continent, however, are too busy applauding to take much note.

Explaining the differences between the Western and African reactions to the election solely in terms of different standards of democracy, most observers say, is facile and even condescending. Rather, they argue, it is instructive to look at some of the concrete considerations that effected the African stand – from political expediency to style, from contrariness toward the West to various forms of solidarity.

"Ordinary Africans do not have different or lower standards than Europeans or Americans," says Robert Rotberg, director of Harvard University's Program on Intrastate Conflict. "They know full well what honesty and integrity mean. But their leaders often act differently, out of solidarity with their fellow heads of state, however evil."

South African President Thabo Mbeki – the African leader most affected by the dire economic and politically inflammable situation in Zimbabwe, and potentially most influential in its resolution – seems to be caught between the Western stance and the African one.

Both Mr. Mbeki and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo have been circumspect in their comments on the elections. They met with Mr. Mugabe Monday, and have resisted international pressure to publicly criticize their colleague. They hoped to broker a resolution, but unsuccessfully lobbied Zimbabwe's opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, to join Mugabe in a coalition government.

Yesterday in London, Mbeki and Mr. Obasanjo met with Australian Prime Minister John Howard to discuss whether Zimbabwe should be sanctioned or even suspended from the commonwealth, though it appears that the African leaders favor less drastic measures.

The solidarity shown by most African leaders has many causes. There is a simple respect for elders in Africa, and a respect for strength for those – like Mugabe – who have ruled for 22 years. Analysts attribute this to the "glass-house syndrome" – a fraternity between elderly, long-term rulers, none of whom is keen to have his own democratic inconsistencies exposed.

There is also a fraternity between Mugabe and other liberation movement rebels-turned-government leaders. "It is unrealistic to think the ANC [South Africa's National Congress] or SWAPO [Namibia's ruling party], FRELIMO [Mozambique's Front for Liberation] or the MPLA [Angola's movement for popular liberation] is going to be openly critical of the ZANU-PF or its liberation-fighter leader," says John Prendergast, Africa program director at the think tank International Crisis Group (ICG). "These movements have a long history of supporting each other." Mugabe, for example, was an outspoken critic of the South Africa's apartheid regime, a stance not easily forgotten in the region.

Finally, there is solidarity on a pan-African level, with support for one another in the face of "the outsider." This includes a hesitancy to sanction intervention in the internal politics of another African country by the West. "African self-esteem is on the line," says one African diplomat, stressing that there is a general feeling among Africans that events in Zimbabwe attracted international attention only because of Mugabe's persecution of a small group of white landowners. "We need to stick together and not kowtow every time whites decide to butt in," says the diplomat.

Even if African leaders wanted to criticize Mugabe and his election, it is not likely they would do so in public, especially with rest of the world watching. "There is an unwillingness or inability to wield power in that way," says Ross Herbert, Africa research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs. "Leaders here are uncomfortable to rap other leaders in the region on the knuckles. They are uncomfortable with the US way of doing things, of saying straight out, 'that is wrong.' "

African leaders "might run over each other's borders," adds Mr. Prendergast, "but they will not politically interfere with the neighbors' affairs. It has always been standard operating procedure. It's just that we are noticing it now."

Furthermore, says Tom Lodge, head of the political studies department at the University of Witwatersrand, there is a sense among African leaders that such public admonitions lead nowhere. "There is a perception that you can't force Mugabe to do anything. Being nasty to him makes him nastier still, and so gentleness and tactful persuasion are the only ways to get around him," he says.

If Mbeki – and to a lesser extent Obasanjo – continues to sit on the fence and does not openly criticize Mugabe, it seems likely that this will have consequences for the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) – Mbeki's visionary plan for a resurgent Africa. NEPAD is based on a formula whereby African leaders commit themselves to good governance, democratic principles, and to hold one another accountable – in exchange for $64 billion in Western financial and technical assistance "This is the test," says Prendergast. "The African governments need to uphold the principles of democracy they signed on to. For their own credibility they will have to condemn these elections."

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