Zimbabwe Could Use Some U.S. Attention

Roger Bate | 22 Jan 2009
Wall Street Journal
Morgan Tsvangirai has nominally been Zimbabwe's prime minister since September, but he may never actually get to hold the post. Monday's collapse of power-sharing talks between Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai marks the latest in a decade-long stream of bad news for this wretched country.

Next week, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) will once again hold a summit to attempt to resolve this crisis. But so far, SADC leaders have allowed Mugabe to renege on all agreements to yield power. Some even portray Mr. Tsvangirai as the obstacle to compromise.

The increasingly demented Mugabe seems to truly believe that Britain wants to recolonize his country and that Mr. Tsvangirai is in the pocket of the West. His ludicrous insistence that Mr. Tsvangirai is merely a British puppet has unfairly made the prime minister-elect part of the problem. Regional leaders, afraid of being perceived by their citizens as supporting the West, have refused to come to his defense.

The despotic Mugabe has misruled Zimbabwe since 1980. Today, at least 80% of Zimbabweans are unemployed. All Western companies have abandoned the country -- only the most ruthless Chinese and Russian operators remain, paying hard currency for gemstones and minerals they help extract. Prices more than double every day, and new-denomination bank notes are issued every week.

A cholera epidemic, which Mugabe blames on Britain, has infected 43,000 and killed 2,150, according to the United Nations. Wilson Chimtengwende, a health worker in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city, told me, "The poor are so malnourished and without transport that any infection can be lethal. Most people die at home with cholera unreported. Deaths could be three times as high as official numbers." (Our phone conversation got cut off four times in 15 minutes, normal given the phone service there.)

By rights -- even by the rules of the Zimbabwean constitution -- the former trade-union leader Mr. Tsvangirai should be president. He won the first round of presidential elections last March, but Mugabe demanded a runoff. His second campaign was derailed in the following months because 200 members of his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), were murdered by Zimbabwe's security services. This handed Mugabe a convenient, uncontested victory. It was the increasingly desperate humanitarian crisis and a lull in violence against his party that led Mr. Tsvangirai to agree to a political compromise in September: He agreed to be prime minister rather than president.

Since then, cholera has ravaged the country, violence against the MDC has escalated (over 40 party members have been abducted), and until last week Mr. Tsvangirai had been kept out of the country because the authorities refused to issue him a new passport. Despite all of this, he was prepared to negotiate at the request of South Africa, only to be rebuffed by Mugabe.

Lovemore Madhuku, a prominent Zimbabwean lawyer, is just one of many experts who believe that Mugabe will never agree to a deal with Mr. Tsvangirai. I have met with Mr. Tsvangirai during my travels to Zimbabwe and I admire his courage and tenacity, but he may need to stand aside temporarily -- such a move will give regional leaders no further excuses not to force Mugabe from power.

Mugabe's ZANU-PF party's salute is the clenched fist, compared to the open-handed wave of Mr. Tsvangirai's MDC. President Barack Obama's inauguration call to the world's oppressors to open their clenched fists could have been written specifically for Mugabe.

Mr. Obama will likely continue the correct policies of the Bush administration -- travel and financial sanctions against Mugabe's cronies. But Mr. Obama's huge appeal, particularly in Africa, might inspire regional leaders to stand up to Mugabe. If he does not at least try to pressure regional leaders, there may soon be no country left for Mr. Tsvangirai to govern.