Home The Washington Diplomat May 2008 Zimbabwe Election Crisis Imperils Fragile State of African Democracy

Zimbabwe Election Crisis Imperils Fragile State of African Democracy


On April 15, a dozen or so Washington journalists, lobbyists and for-eign policy analysts eagerly gathered at a conference room in Georgetown to hear Zimbabwe’s ambassador to the United States discuss his country’s disputed March 29 elections.

But the noontime event, sponsored by the nonprofit Institute on Religion and Public Policy (IRPP), was abruptly cancelled after Ambassador Machivenyika Mapuranga failed to appear. Organizers apologized profusely to the attendees, who had waited more than an hour to hear how Mapuranga — a staunch defender of President Robert Mugabe — would justify the Harare government’s violent crackdown on opposition supporters.

“He probably got lost,” joked conference participant William Reed, publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America” and outreach coordinator for the Africa-focused Coalition to Give Peace a Chance.

In fact, Mapuranga apparently never intended to speak to the group at all, despite repeated confirmations by embassy staff that he would.

“In five years of having monthly ambassador forums, we have never had an ambassador simply fail to show up,” said Priya Abraham, the IRPP’s director of communications. “We’ve had postponements and last-minute cancellations, but never an unexplained absence. It simply seems to confirm that the current government in Zimbabwe, while a major election is in dispute, has no care for its legitimacy. It further demonstrates that the government of Zimbabwe is apathetic to its international and public reputation.”

Reed, however, thinks the election standoff — in which Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change both claim victory — has been unfairly portrayed in the U.S. media.

“There’s an anti-Western bias with regard to Mugabe, but I’m just waiting for this to play itself out,” he said. “In my opinion, Zimbabwe is being brought to its knees because of Western, and in particular European Union, sanctions to topple Mugabe. It has to do with his policy of taking land away from white farmers and giving it to blacks. This is hardly an indication of what’s happening in the rest of Africa.”

Maybe it isn’t, but sub-Saharan Africa’s 47 other countries are certainly keeping a close eye on the outcome of this election, which could set the stage for democratic reforms across the continent for years to come.

In fact, the day after Ambassador Mapuranga didn’t show up for his own speech in Washington, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a stern warning in New York.

“The situation could deteriorate further with serious implications for the people of Zimbabwe,” he told delegates at a U.N. Security Council meeting. “The Zimbabwean authorities and the countries of the region have insisted that these methods are for the region to resolve. But the international community continues to watch and wait for decisive action. The credibility of the democratic process in Africa could be at stake here.”

Ban’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, speaking in Nairobi to celebrate the successful government power-sharing deal in Kenya that he helped to orchestrate, also called on African leaders to resolve the Zimbabwe crisis. “On the question of Zimbabwe there has been substantial international attention,” he told reporters. “The question which has been posed is: Where are the Africans? Where are their leaders and the countries in the region, what are they doing? It is a rather dangerous situation. It’s a serious crisis with impact beyond Zimbabwe.”

Tsvangirai’s opposition party claims hundreds of its members have been arrested and at least 10 killed by Mugabe’s forces. Human rights groups have also accused Mugabe of using militias to set up “torture camps” to stifle opposition supporters while the government tries to rig a recount of the votes.

Nonsense, says Baffour Ankomah, editor of the monthly New African magazine.

Ankomah, who was interviewed by phone from London, covered the Zimbabwe elections and said it is absolutely untrue that the Mugabe government is cracking down on opposition leaders. Ankomah told The Diplomat that there will be a runoff election because neither Mugabe nor Tsvangirai won 51 percent of the vote as required to be elected president outright.

“The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is an independent body which has the responsibility of coming out with results,” he said, calling a recent Human Rights Watch report on the elections a disgrace. “The government is a party to the elections, so it cannot release results.”

But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the only disgrace has been the Mugabe regime, calling it “a disgrace to the people of Zimbabwe and a disgrace to southern Africa and to the continent of Africa as a whole.” Indeed, with still no official results nearly a month after the election, international leaders are getting inpatient with what has thus far been a muted African response to the situation in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe snubbed a regional summit of the Southern African Development Community earlier in April, and so far, the 53-member African Union has only issued a statement urging the government to release the election results immediately and calling for restraint on all sides. South African President Thabo Mbeki in particular has been criticized for failing to use his considerable influence over Mugabe, coming under fire at a recent U.N. Security Council meeting by Western leaders who balked at Mbeki’s assertion that there was no crisis in Zimbabwe. “No one thinks, having seen the results of polling stations, that President Mugabe has won,” said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Ankomah, who is from Ghana, argues that Great Britain, the United States and other Western powers are simply punishing Mugabe for pushing through controversial land reforms in the 1990s that helped black peasants at the expense of white farmers. By most accounts, however, those land reforms — which Westerners describe as the violent seizure of white-owned land to hand over to Mugabe’s cronies — plunged Zimbabwe into economic devastation, with the African breadbasket that Mugabe inherited 28 years ago now beset with a mind-boggling inflation rate of 165,000 percent, massive unemployment and abject poverty.

But Ankomah defends Mugabe for his revolutionary concept of giving Africa back to Africans. “If Zimbabwe succeeds, the impact on the region and on Africa as a whole is going to be very big,” he insisted. “The idea of giving Africans ownership of their own resources is going to resonate throughout the region. It will set an example for South Africa and Namibia to do likewise. This is why the imperial powers do not want Zimbabwe to succeed.”

Jocelyn B. Radifera, Madagascar’s ambassador in Washington, declined to comment specifically on the situation in Zimbabwe, though he said that his tropical island nation — whose president, Marc Ravalomanana, was recently re-elected to another five-year term — is an ideal example for other developing African democracies to follow.

“For several years, we were a rather leftist country. Then came a change in 1989, and we found out that being socialist was not the way to go,” said Radifera. “Marc Ravalomanana was the first president who really wanted things to change. He approached development from the basis of market economics and aimed to eliminate corruption completely. That was our first goal, good governance and eliminating corruption.”

The ambassador added: “Democracy depends on how you define it. I would say that democracy definitely exists in Africa. It’s a bit slow, but I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

According to Freedom House, among the 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, only 11 were rated “free” for their performance in 2006, while 22 were rated “partly free” and 15 were rated “not free.”

Thomas O. Melia, deputy executive director of the Washington-based Freedom House, said the region “presents some of the most promising examples of new democracies in the world, as well as some of the most disheartening examples of political stagnation, democratic backsliding and state failure.”

In a press statement, Melia lauded former one-party socialist states like Mali, Niger, Cape Verde and Benin, which since the collapse of the Soviet Union have successfully established durable political systems based on electoral accountability.

“These remain poor countries, though it is a terrific advantage that debate and discussion about the proper way forward can now take place in the media and in parliaments,” he said. “One of the least reported, least appreciated stories in recent years may well be the ongoing advance of freedom across the African continent, notwithstanding the setbacks that receive much more attention.”

However, the fate of freedom and the future of democracy in Africa cannot be taken for granted, Melia warned. Even though Sierra Leone, Congo and Liberia have tentatively emerged from years of ethnic strife, civil wars continue to plague several African countries.

In Kenya, a wave of tribal bloodshed has finally subsided, now that a power-sharing government that includes both President Mwai Kibaki and his rival, Raila Odinga, has taken effect.

The two men had contested the results of Kenya’s Dec. 27 presidential voting, sparking a post-election crisis that led to the deaths of at least 1,500 people and tarnished the image of a country once considered to be a bedrock of African stability. But thanks to the intervention of former U.N. Secretary-General Annan, the violence finally came to an end, leading Odinga to say at the April 17 swearing-in ceremony in Nairobi that “we have been to hell and back. We must preserve the sanctity of our nation and remain united, but our unity cannot be based on words and goodwill alone.”

Peter Ogego, Kenya’s ambassador to the United States, said he’s glad his country has finally overcome the worst outbreak of violence since its independence in 1963.

“It’s important that we’ve come to an end to the political instability that followed the December elections,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “A new cabinet has been sworn in, a grand coalition which truly embodies all the political parties that participated in the election — to such an extent that we virtually have to look for opposition within parliament itself, apart from the media and civil society, in order to keep the current government on its toes. But it’s a welcome reprieve from the anxieties of the recent past.”

As for Africa’s other major powers, Nigeria and South Africa, Melia of Freedom House noted that “it is hugely important for the entire continent that Nigeria is no longer suffering under military dictatorship and that apartheid [in South Africa] has been vanquished — though troubling trends are present in both countries, where corruption casts long shadows and political competition is hobbled.”

Nigerian-born Fred Oladeinde is president of the Foundation for Democracy in Africa, a nonprofit organization established in 1994 with offices in Washington and Miami. “On paper, all of Africa’s countries except those without a government, i.e. Somalia, embrace the principle of democracy,” he said. “They’re struggling to put institutions in place. They’re moving up the learning curve. There are no right or wrong democracies. It’s all about how responsible the government is to its citizens, and how those governments are able to ensure the participation of its citizens in the decision-making process.”

In Oladeinde’s mind, there seems to be no doubt that Mugabe — as British Prime Minister Brown recently charged — is attempting to steal the March elections. “President Mugabe, at this point in time, does not carry the support of most of the people of Zimbabwe. And if you do not carry the support of the electorate, then it’s clear that it’s time for a change. This is not a monarchy, but an elected government,” said Oladeinde.

“There’s also been an influx of Zimbabweans trying to get away from the economic and political situation at home,” he added. “We find intelligent, educated, well-trained people moving to Botswana and becoming maids and drivers. That’s how bad the level of deterioration has become.”

Oladeinde cited Botswana as one of only two African nations — the other being Mauritius — that has anything approaching a true democracy.

“I really do not think there’s a perfect democracy,” he said, “though the number of failed states in Africa has been reduced. Sierra Leone now has a government. So does Liberia, and hopefully the situation in the Horn of Africa will correct itself as soon as the challenges there are resolved.”

And as to his native Nigeria, Oladeinde said, “It has an elected government now, and that government is struggling to address some of the gaps. That’s what democracies do — their objective is to always ensure that the interests of the people are served.”

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.