Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Wednesday, April 4

How do you solve a problem like Mugabe?

Looking at recent pictures of Zimbabwe’s opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, you can see the nastiness of the political situation in Zimbabwe. President Robert Mugabe’s security forces arrested Mr. Tsvangirai on charges of illegal protest late last month and nearly beat him to death.

Tsvangiari, the former trade unionist leader and head of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was arrested again on March 28th. Mugabe’s actions have bolstered Tsvangiari’s popularity, and drawn international attention to Zimbabwe’s crisis, but they have also intimidated the population.

Low turn out at a strike called by Zimbabwe’s trade union, the ZCTU, to protest falling wages is evidence of the government’s success in scaring activists. As a few protesters gathered on April 3, military helicopters circled Harare, and riot police patrolled the city center. With unemployment at 80 percent and inflation well over 1700 percent, it is not surprising that the few workers who have jobs do not want to risk losing them by protesting.

People in Zimbabwe are ready for new leadership. In a recent opinion poll, 65 percent of voters said they want new government. Yet Mugabe is not planning on relinquishing power in the near future: he recently proposed postponing elections until 2010. While the average life expectancy in Zimbabwe is 38, Mugabe is a remarkably healthy 83 years old. He gained popularity after being tortured in prison in the 1960s, and became an anti-colonial hero for ending white minority rule under Ian Smith in the 1970s. But Mugabe's leadership became increasingly harsh as he held on to power. In addition to expelling white farmers and journalists, encouraging land grabs, postponing elections, and mismanaging the economy, Mugabe’s legacy includes overseeing the massacre of thousands of villagers by North Korean-trained soldiers in Matabeleland, in the south-west of the country, in the early 1980s.

Zimbabwe needs change. But how can reform come to this embattled country? Internal protests are stifled, credible elections are a long way off, and the US and UK have little influence over Mugabe, not to mention that they lack the political will to become involved. An editorial in the Zimbabwe Independent predicts that economic collapse is more likely to bring change than political opposition. Sever economic crisis has not phased Mugabe so far (see graph).

Recent editorials in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Financial Times call for regional pressure from southern African leaders, especially South African President Thabo Mbeki, to force Mugabe to step down. But, as The Economist points out, Mbeki has tried and failed to broker talks on power-sharing in Zimbabwe. South Africa also offered to help Zimbabwe to pay its debts to the IMF if the regime improved its behavior, but Mugabe refused. Furthermore, Mugabe has recently reached a power agreement with Namibia and oil agreements with Equatorial Guinea, and maintains good relations with Angola.

Although a lot must change before a regional solution will work, it may be the best option. Perhaps NGOs can play a larger role in supporting Zimbabwe’s democratic process. Transitioning to internationally monitored elections is the eventual goal, but Mugabe prefers to tell western leaders to “go hang” rather than welcoming their election monitors. Does any one see a creative solution?