Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Zimbabwe's Mess and the U.S. Response

Tracy Kuperus


July 28, 2003

Few will deny that Zimbabwe is hurting. Its economy suffers from food and fuel shortages, soaring inflation, and desperately high unemployment (60-70 percent). Since the late 1990s, the country has been wracked by electoral corruption, human rights abuses, and the abandonment of constitutional rule.

The United States has voiced its concerns regarding the plight of Zimbabwe. In preparation for his recent trip to sub-Saharan Africa, President Bush, with the help of Colin Powell, outlined the US position. In short, Robert Mugabe's authoritarian regime needs to go. How? The Bush administration has imposed "smart sanctions" on Zimbabwe, ended all official assistance, spoken out on behalf of human rights, and urged African leaders to make a concerted effort to encourage Mugabe to step down. The Bush administration is hardly alone in condemning Zimbabwe's political repression. A broad spectrum of Africa-related groups has called for African mediation and unconditional dialogue among Zimbabweans that would lead to a peaceful democratic transition.

Despite the groundswell of support for change in Zimbabwe, the Bush administration is meeting resistance to its ideas. The resistance is coming not only from Mugabe's regime but from African leaders in countries like South Africa, Nigeria, and Malawi. Two reasons explain their resistance: the haunt of a colonial past and charges of hypocrisy and opportunism.

First, these African leaders are not necessarily convinced that Western governments like the US are truly committed to democracy in Zimbabwe. If the West was so committed, wouldn't it also be complaining about political repression in overwhelmingly black countries like Eritrea, Burundi, and Swaziland? Western governments are concerned about political repression in Zimbabwe, some African leaders argue, because Zimbabwe's white minority, which until recently owned the majority of arable land, opposes Zimbabwe's land reform program designed to rectify colonial injustices.

African leaders are also aware of the selective attention paid to Zimbabwe. The US has seized on the Zimbabwe case, and yet has adopted a more or less hands-off approach to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and until recently, Liberia—countries that desperately need attention. US ambivalence or, worse yet, inaction on these hot spots undercuts its pressure on Zimbabwe. Additionally, African leaders have not ignored American inconsistency, past and present, toward corrupt, authoritarian leaders. While the US is outspoken regarding the Mugabe regime, it has embraced regimes led by autocrats like Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni.

Although African leaders point up genuine problems in the Bush administration's approach to Zimbabwe, unjust rule is unjust rule. Willingness to uphold an oppressive regime simply because it is opposed to international imperialism is tactically and morally untenable. There are no excuses for African governments' complicity with Robert Mugabe.

However, the US can also make some foreign policy amends. Upholding authoritarian regimes like Pakistan and Egypt because they contribute to US anti-terrorism efforts is also tactically and morally untenable. To allay charges of opportunism, the US should take the lead in promoting a foreign policy that consistently supports widespread democratic rule.

The US could also do better regarding Zimbabwe by encouraging African leaders and groups like the African Union or the United Nations to foment change in Zimbabwe through mediated intervention and negotiations. An embrace of, and support for, African-initiated, multilateral efforts will be the most successful in bringing about a peaceful democratic transition in Zimbabwe.

—Tracy Kuperus, Research Associate
    Center for Christian Studies, Gordon College


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”