Time to Rein in Mugabe

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (L), President Bakili Muluzi of Malawi (C), and Namibian President Sam Nujoma (R) pose at the opening of the three-day summit in Blantyre, Malawi, Aug. 12, 2001.

Today [Aug. 12], the region's leaders gather in Blantyre, Malawi, for what should be a critical summit in the Southern African Development Community's life.

Having finalized most of the protocols aimed at turning the SADC into a vibrant economic bloc, their task now is to turn these intentions into reality.

They will deliberate on how to foster greater trade within the region, how to prevent conflicts, how to engender good governance, and how to coordinate economic and social policies.

In their midst will be one Robert Mugabe, the president of Malawi's neighbor Zimbabwe. When he arrives, his peers will give him warm, brotherly hugs.

When other leaders speak of the need to create stability, entrench democracy, and create a climate conducive to economic growth in Southern Africa, Mugabe will nod accordingly. When protocols committing the region's leaders to achieving the above are signed, he will enthusiastically attach his signature.

In doing so, Mugabe will be performing a most cynical act of deceit. For the Zimbabwe that he will have left behind is in the throes of a crisis—one he himself has created.

It is a crisis that his own Minister of Finance, Simba Makoni, candidly accepted during an address to his country's Parliament this week.

Announcing that the Zimbabwean economy was likely to perform badly this year, Makoni painted a bleak picture of a country facing a poor crop harvest, a foreign currency crisis, fuel shortages, a dramatic drop in tourist numbers, massive job losses, and spiraling inflation.

While he hinted that the government would have to import wheat and maize, Makoni failed to speak frankly about the fear in the minds of Zimbabweans and international aid organizations: that the country may soon face an acute food shortage.

This is the most immediate crisis facing Zimbabwe now, and it is one that will be felt throughout the region.

An economic meltdown in Zimbabwe will deal a blow to all efforts for regional integration. Political instability in one of the region's powerhouses will inevitably have a knock-on effect on neighbors.

And when gruesome scenes of violence and lawlessness in that country are aired on international television networks, the entire region is tainted.

Zimbabwe's crisis is Southern Africa's crisis. That should be incentive enough for SADC leaders to rein in Mugabe.

But it is primarily for the people of Zimbabwe that the SADC hierarchy should act. It was, after all, on their behalf that Southern Africa helped Mugabe overthrow Ian Smith's racist regime.

The same people are now appealing to the region to free them from the erstwhile liberation hero, who seems set on emulating the Smith regime when it comes to brutality and disregard for basic human rights. These people have seen their standards of living eroded by a government stubbornly intent on ignoring logic and constructive advice.

To their credit, there are SADC leaders who have gone some way toward exerting a positive influence on Mugabe. These efforts—as South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki said this week—have come to naught.

It is now time to turn up the heat. As we have argued previously, there are ways of exerting pressure without yelling senselessly, as some Western powers have done.

Within the ambit of the SADC, the region's leaders can let Mugabe know that he is the unacceptable face of African leadership.

They can begin to wield the stick of travel restrictions and other limited sanctions that will harm Zimbabwe's rulers while having a limited impact on its populace. Such sanctions will begin to undermine Mugabe's hold on his inner circle by making the lives of his cabinet ministers a bit more uncomfortable.

It is this tougher line that will nudge the Mugabe regime away from the precipice.