Mugabe Will Try to Outfox the World
Mugabe Will Try to Outfox the World
Op-Ed / Africa 2 minutes

Mugabe Will Try to Outfox the World

Seen from afar, the struggle of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to hold on to power and outfox the outside world looks pathetic if it were not that his eventual success in the March presidential election would mean continued dictatorship and famine for his countrymen.

His latest trick is to accept as foreign monitors only citizens from nations and organizations that he has chosen. Not surprisingly, the citizens of the United States and Britain are not acceptable; neither is the Carter Center of Atlanta, which has monitored many foreign elections. The only American group that is welcome is the NAACP.

Are we surprised? Not at all. Last August I sat with Morgan Tsvangerai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, in his office in Harare and we joked that the panoply of foreign monitors allowed would be composed of North Koreans, Burmese, Iraqis, Libyans and perhaps someone from Belarus to give it an old-continent touch. Comrade Bob (as Mugabe is known to his fellow war veterans and his fellow foreign dictators) came up with a more business-oriented criterion: The countries and organizations allowed to send monitors all happen to have some trade interests in Zimbabwe. They are unlikely to come down hard on him for his electoral peccadillos or his gross violations of human rights, such as having opponents killed or opposition newspapers bombed.

And to make sure that his sins, small and large, do not get exposed by the media, Mugabe had a gag law adopted in parliament Thursday. The so-called Access to Information and Protection of Privacy bill restricts access for foreign reporters and imposes tight controls on local media.

So now that Mugabe has warned the media not to be a nuisance, the coast is clear. Unless he reaches for the ultimate weapon and declares a state of emergency, which would effectively suspend the elections and many civil rights, the contest will probably go ahead March 9 and 10.

What is to be done?

The predictions show that the opposition MDC is a favorite in these elections. Everything must be done to ensure that Zimbabwe's people get what they want.

This means monitoring the election process, and monitoring it well, despite Mugabe's roadblocks. Countries and groups (mostly African regional trade organizations) doing the "official" monitoring must be told clearly that they will be treated as accomplices if they let Comrade Bob get away with crime: killing candidates, dissidents, journalists or voters, or simply stealing the election by other means.

Nongovernmental organizations with experience in Zimbabwe (religious, humanitarian, development groups) must rally all their members to revisit the country and denounce whatever electoral dirt they see.

Electoral experts from countries that evolved from similar dictatorships through elections should send people (with tourist visas if need be) to discreetly watch and later publicly describe their observations. This may not be a "formally accepted" monitoring group but neither can it be accepted that a dictator handpicks who will watch him do as he pleases.

Thanks to sanctions, travel by Mugabe and Co. to Britain is off limits. The European Union may impose the same travel ban, freeze assets and ban exports of some items that can be used as weapons or tools of repression. But it is equally important to watch Mugabe at home and denounce him if he misbehaves.

Although the opposition MDC is at an obvious disadvantage because of repression, harassment and restrictive laws, it has decided not to boycott the election. Therefore, it is the outside world's moral obligation to give Zimbabwe's people a fair chance to freely express their will at the polls.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.