At Large

Dictators’ Dilemma

Why the strongmen of the African Union should condemn Mugabe.

By 7.2.08

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On Sunday Robert Mugabe was inaugurated for his sixth term as President of Zimbabwe, continuing a 26-year legacy. This comes after credible allegations that the recent election cycle fell short of the desired standard of freedom and fairness.

The international community is in uproar. Mugabe has been de-knighted. No one will invite him to tea or to play cricket. America is implementing sanctions. Journalists are condemning him left and right.

The rhetoric is near universal: Mugabe has no right to rule the country because of the way he conducted himself during elections. He abducted opposition leaders, arrested journalists, and watched people vote under threat of bodily harm. The African Union (AU) should most certainly declare his election a sham and throw him out of the country.

Leaders of the AU are confused at this because, in many cases, a condemnation of Mugabe on that basis would be paramount to condemning themselves. Just take a look at some of the men who are being asked to side against Mugabe.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo became the president of Equatorial Guinea in 1979 by leading a coup d'etat in which the former president, Nguema's uncle, was killed. He has held elections in which he consistently wins 97 percent of the popular vote. No one believes they are free or fair.

In 1993 Eritrea became an independent nation and Isaias Afeweki became its first president. Since then there has been only one party in the country. Afeweki has never called elections. Journalists who dare label him a dictator are simply expelled from the country or simply disappear.

In 1989 a coup against a democratically elected government brought Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to power. Bashir has imposed Sharia law over the North and is accused of supporting ethnic cleansing in Darfur. Bashir's track record includes dissolving parliament (twice), banning political parties, and imprisoning opposition leaders.

President Biya of Cameroon has been re-elected four times since 1975. The elections have been suspect. He has been appropriating money from state enterprises for years and reportedly owns mansions in both Germany and France. Just this year, Biya amended a two-term limit in Cameroon's new constitution in order to maintain his 25-year hold on the country.

Muammar Gaddafi took power in Libya via a coup in 1969. Among his many accomplishments he has called for the assassinations of dissenting Libyans living overseas, expelled all Italians and Jews from the country and taken part in acts of international terrorism. While he is rumored to have mellowed with old age, his past crimes certainly qualify him as a dictator.

That's already five of the 53 African leaders who attained and maintained their positions of power in much the same way that Mugabe did. Actually, Mugabe has only been maintaining his. He at least received the original nomination legitimately.

ACCORDING TO THE Washington Post, Mugabe announced that if anyone dared point a finger at him he would "check if that finger were clean or dirty." If the standard to be measured against is simply dictatorship, then many fingers would be dirty.

But the standard that the rest of the world is asking Africa to uphold should have very little to do with dictatorship. Mugabe differs significantly from the other African dictators. And, no, it's not because he doesn't have oil. Rather, it is because he is mismanaging his country to financial ruin.

Zimbabwe is the only country mentioned whose annual GDP growth has been negative since 1999. It is the only country whose inflation rate has surpassed 100,000 percent. Yes, you read that right. One hundred thousand percent.

His country's economy was once the fastest growing of the continent. Before Mugabe began a campaign of nationalizing white-owned farms and giving them to his friends instead of to competent farmers, Zimbabwe was considered the breadbasket of Africa. In only a few years, the country went from being a provider of regional food relief to a desperate beggar.

No other dictator has this track record of destruction. Sure, they commit egregious acts of terror upon their people. There is no freedom of press, money is stolen by state officials and journalists are imprisoned. They certainly won't be winning any Nobel prizes, but the extent to which their activities affect the general population is small potatoes compared to ruining a country's entire economy.

Not to mention that changing social habits of cronyism and nepotism is not a feasible short-term goal. Removing one dictator will almost certainly lead to the instatement of another. In those cases where is does not, luck seems to be the primary factor.

If the dictator is at least getting the economics right, if the country is developing at a steady rate and moving towards sustainable industries, then standard of living will continue to grow despite corrupt leaders.

Mugabe isn't really being called out because of the fraudulent elections. The West would be willing to turn a blind eye to his cronyism and even some acts of violence. What the West will not tolerate is his mismanagement of the Zimbabwean economy, to the detriment of not only his citizens but all the countries in the region.

Leaders in the AU should recognize this and hold Mugabe accountable for his actions. Their fingers are not "dirty" compared to his. They haven't inflicted famine, grinding poverty, and 100,000 percent inflation on their peoples.

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About the Author

Erin Wildermuth is a graduate student at the London School of Economics.