With his ruthless seizure of power in the June 27 runoff election in Zimbabwe, following a well-organized campaign to intimidate and murder members of the opposition, Robert Mugabe joined Myanmar’s military junta at the top of the list of the world’s most despised dictators. Both the Burmese generals and Mugabe’s inner circle have enriched themselves while reducing their people to near starvation. They have jailed, tortured, and killed supporters of democracy, and shrugged off years of international condemnation. Moreover, unlike Myanmar’s secretive regime, Mugabe and the cabal that supports him have seemed to enjoy flaunting their contempt for democracy and their easy embrace of violence.

That cabal is led by hard-line members of the Zimbabwean military and a handful of cabinet officials who served alongside Mugabe in the independence war of the 1970s. They include the commander in chief of Zimbabwe’s armed forces, General Constantine Chiwenga, and Emerson Mnangagwa, an heir apparent to Mugabe who, as minister of national security in 1983, allegedly oversaw the massacre of thousands of political opponents in Matabeleland. “He is a man with the capacity to be more vicious than Mugabe,” I was told by University of Zimbabwe political analyst John Makumbe.

Mnangagwa was one of the principal orchestrators of the campaign of violence and intimidation against the opposition launched in April—known as CIBD, or Coercion, Intimidation, Beating, and Displacement. (According to recent reports, over a hundred opposition supporters have been killed and more than 200,000 displaced.) And Mugabe, after initially conceding defeat in private and considering resignation or negotiation, quickly embraced the hard-liners’ position. “We are not going to give up our country because of a mere X,” Mugabe declared in the midst of his bloody campaign last month, rejecting any pretense of a legitimate election. “How can a ballpoint pen fight with a gun?”

The dictator’s spokesman, George Charamba, told the press that Western governments who criticized Zimbabwe’s election could “go hang a thousand times. They have no basis, they have no claim on Zimbabwe politics at all.” That kind of thumb-in-the-eye defiance has intensified the world’s sense of impotence and prompted a hard look at the question: Is there anything that can be done now to get rid of Robert Mugabe?

The days following Mugabe’s ghastly recoronation ceremony saw the first test of international resolve. Leaders from Gordon Brown of Great Britain to Kenya’s new prime minister Raila Odinga assailed the state-sponsored violence that forced Morgan Tsvangirai to take refuge in the Dutch embassy and withdraw from the race, leaving Mugabe the sole candidate. “What is happening in Zimbabwe is a shame and an embarrassment to Africa in the eyes of the international community and should be denounced,” Odinga said, in perhaps the strongest words of condemnation ever uttered against Mugabe by a fellow African leader.*

Former South African president Nelson Mandela broke with Thabo Mbeki’s long and shameful silence on the issue to condemn, during a major public appearance in London, Zimbabwe’s “failure of leadership.” George W. Bush tightened a travel ban that already targets 250 people and companies associated with Mugabe’s illegitimate regime, and forbids Americans to do business with them. Canada ordered new travel restrictions on senior Zimbabwean officials and their families and barred Zimbabwean-registered aircraft from Canadian air space. In addition, the US and Great Britain pressed the UN Security Council to freeze Mugabe’s assets along with those of eleven senior Mugabe officials, ban them from traveling outside the country, and impose an international arms embargo. But the US resolution calling for sanctions was vetoed by Russia and China on July 12.

It’s hard to imagine, however, that any of these initiatives would make much difference. Targeted sanctions have been in effect against the Mugabe gang for nearly a decade—when the dictator launched his violent land grab against white-owned farms and sent the economy into free fall—and, at best, they’ve proven a minor inconvenience. (Most existing travel bans don’t include the families of Mugabe’s inner circle; as a result, some of the most ruthless suppressors of democracy send their sons and daughters to elite schools in the United States and Europe.) While it’s true that a Security Council–ordered asset freeze and travel ban would have hurt them more, the recent dual veto showed that getting the UN to speak in one voice against dictatorships, no matter how heinous, has almost always been nearly impossible.

As in the case of Myanmar, China had a key part as Zimbabwe’s protector against the US effort to pass a Security Council resolution punishing the dictatorship. Russia led the veto of sanctions, claiming that Mugabe’s election thuggery was an internal matter beyond the scope of the United Nations. But China, the biggest investor in Zimbabwe, with huge stakes in its mines and lucrative deals to provide weapons and ammunition to its military, happily followed Russia’s lead. Meanwhile, South Africa under President Mbeki has provided Mugabe’s regime with diplomatic cover, as well as fuel, power, and international bank accounts for his inner circle—and that shows no signs of changing now.


The difficulty of getting the world to act together became particularly clear at the African Union Summit in Sharm el-Sheik on June 30, the day after Mugabe’s swearing-in ceremony. South Africa’s Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other world figures had called on African leaders to refuse to recognize Mugabe when he showed up at the meeting. But there was no such repudiation, only a tepid collective call for “dialogue” between Tsvangirai and Mugabe and for the formation of a national unity government—as if both men had a legitimate claim to victory. Ignoring the systematic murders, beatings, and displacements of thousands of supporters of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, an AU observer statement said only that “the vote fell short of the African Union’s standards of democratic elections.”

Again, Mugabe’s chief protector, South African President Mbeki, hid his support for the dictator behind another call for African solutions, rejecting a European Union position that it would accept only a Zimbabwean government led by Tsvangirai. “The result that comes out of that process of dialogue must be a result that is agreed by the Zimbabweans,” Mbeki said on the radio, ignoring the fact that a majority of Zimbabweans had already voted to remove Mugabe—only to be brutalized by a regime that had no intention of giving up power.

Not everybody views the AU conference as a bleak development. The willingness of several African leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh and elsewhere on the continent to condemn Mugabe marked a sharp break from the past, insists David Coltart, a Zimbabwean opposition leader and one of two white members of Parliament. “Even ten years ago what Mugabe has done would be a non-event,” Coltart said. “Now a significant and increasing number of African leaders are embarrassed, even angry, about his behavior.” Such waning in his support is unlikely to affect Mugabe or his inner circle immediately (even Mandela’s criticism was brushed off last week as having been manipulated by the West). But it could, Coltart argued, eventually have a significant effect. “Mugabe has been able to keep his supporters going because of their belief that Africa is on their side and they will ultimately prevail,” he told me. “The moment they realize that that is no longer the case Mugabe [or his cabal] will weaken dramatically.”

But what hope is there for serious change in the short term? The chances of a Kenya-style sharing of power by Mugabe’s ruling clique and the Movement for Democratic Change seem slim. Mugabe and the Joint Operations Command—the military hard-liners that surround him—see little reason to negotiate, believing, probably correctly, that there is little the world can do to stop him. There are some dissenters within the upper echelons of the ruling party: Vice President Joyce Mujuru, for example, a former independence fighter known by the nom de guerre Comrade Spillblood, reportedly expressed misgivings in cabinet meetings about the campaign of violence, as did some lower-ranking generals and colonels. Predictably, the hard-liners won out.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu last week raised the possibility of military intervention to unseat Mugabe, calling for a deployment of UN peacekeepers or AU forces. But barring a Rwanda- or Darfur-style catastrophe on the ground, that clearly won’t happen. With inflation running at one thousand percent per day, and mass starvation and state-sponsored violence occurring across the country, Zimbabwe could at some point implode, and the world’s powerful nations will have to reconsider what can be done. But Zimbabwe will probably fade from the headlines as world attention shifts to the next crisis. The atrocities of the last two months will be transformed into the quiet terror that Mugabe’s citizens have come to expect from their government.

—July 17, 2008