The outcome of Zimbabwe’s presidential election on March 29 has remained uncertain for two weeks, amid signs of manipulation by President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party. Underscoring these signs was the arrest of several foreign journalists on April 4 on the trumped-up charge of practicing journalism without government approval. Such a charge reflects just one of many human rights abuses that have plagued the nation during the 28 years of Mr. Mugabe’s rule. Although it appears that the main opposition party’s candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, may have won by a slender margin, with barely 50 percent of the vote, Mr. Mugabe has shown no signs of accepting defeat and may call for a runoff. Violence is a constant threat. Last year Mr. Tsvangirai and a number of his followers were badly beaten by opponents.
Once hailed as a hero for leading the struggle for independence from British rule, the 84-year-old Mugabe has brought desolation to his country, especially through a “land reform” program in 2000 that benefited primarily his friends. Now the impoverished country has an inflation rate of 100,000 percent, which has rendered its currency nearly worthless. In a land that was once called the breadbasket of Africa because of its abundant harvests, hunger is an everyday experience for millions. The World Food Program has estimated that as much as a third of the population will need donated food assistance this year.
Mr. Mugabe, sadly, has used food as a political weapon. Only his closest supporters have had access to state-subsidized items like corn, the staple food of the nation’s diet. Food shortages and unemployment (now 80 percent) have led millions of Zimbabweans to leave their native land for neighboring countries. Remittances sent home have helped, but few receive them. Adding to the nation’s suffering is its high rate of H.I.V./AIDS, which has contributed to a sharp decline in life expectancy—currently 37 years for men, 34 for women—the lowest in the world. But despite the extremes of poverty endured by a majority of the population, Shari Eppel, a longtime human rights advocate in Zimbabwe, told America that “the rich have never been richer.”
Especially troubling is the trampling of human rights by the very governmental entities, like the police, that should be upholding them. Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, has commented that “it is appalling that the police, who are supposed to prevent abuses, are committing them.” Just this past February, police agents arrested nine members of a teachers union for distributing flyers related to an education campaign. Taken to headquarters, they were beaten with iron bars, and a woman in the group was sexually assaulted.
Not only the police, but also members of the army and other branches of the security forces have abused their virtually unlimited powers, including the use of torture. What makes these abuses particularly disturbing is the atmosphere of impunity in which they take place. The government has done little to investigate them and to bring the perpetrators to justice. It has even prevented human rights organizations from conducting independent investigations. As the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference stated in its report last year, God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed, “It almost appears as though someone sat down with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and deliberately scrubbed out each in turn.”
One clear need is for human rights monitors to be more active. The monitors deployed by the member states of the Southern African Development Community have shown little backbone thus far, but they could help promote stability as well as much-needed respect for human rights. The African Union, a larger, intergovernmental organization consisting of over 50 African nations, should also help restore genuine democratic principles and overall security in the region.
In the event that Mr. Mugabe does finally step aside, the international community must help this all but moribund nation return to life by providing economic support. Strong pressure should also be brought to bear to protect human rights, which have been trampled in an atmosphere that has lacked the transparency needed to inspire confidence among Zimbabwe’s own population and abroad. Accountability on the part of the police, army and security forces in general must be a priority if the country is to gain the respect of other nations. The humanitarian crisis in this country of 12 million has continued for too long. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice correctly pointed out on the day after the elections that Mr. Mugabe’s regime has become a disgrace “to the [African] continent as a whole.” His regime, we hope, is now finally coming to an end.