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    A Times Editorial

    In Zimbabwe, nobody wins


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 17, 2002

    The nations of South Africa and Nigeria do themselves and the future of the African continent no favors by endorsing the recent sham elections in Zimbabwe. Every report to be believed coming out of Zimbabwe indicates that President Robert Mugabe's victory was a fraud. The continuation of Mugabe's illegitimate presidency will be a destabilizing factor in the region and another roadblock to an economically vital Africa.

    The official tally gave Mugabe 56 percent of the vote, compared with 42 percent for his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai. Even if the count was honest, everything leading up to it came out of a tutorial for dictators. Mugabe thrust his nation into chaos to script a win for himself. He interfered with the independent media, arresting and intimidating reporters and editors. He prevented Tsvangirai from getting access to state-run radio and television, and closed down public rallies supporting the opposition. His thugs beat opposition candidates and supporters. The state was so menacing that pollsters couldn't get a majority of Zimbabweans to declare a prefered candidate.

    The election itself was a joke. Mugabe made sure there would be few foreign election observers around to condemn the process. Some of those who were allowed in were detained by police during the voting. Mugabe strategically shut down polling places in urban areas where his support was weakest, leading to hours-long lines at those that were open. Zimbabwe's high court ordered the election to run for a third day. But Mugabe interfered again by delaying the opening of polling places for five hours.

    Mugabe has become increasingly desperate to retain the presidency he has held since the country obtained independence in 1980. His popular support has dwindled because of the mess he has made of the country's economy. During his tenure, Zimbabwe has been transformed from the breadbasket of Africa to a nation that needs food aid to survive.

    Mugabe has encouraged black veterans to invade white-owned farms, leaving fields fallow and badly eroding the productivity of the agricultural sector. Because the country no longer values the rule of law, foreign investment has dried up.

    While American and European governments have bluntly called the election illegitimate, many of Africa's leaders, in a misguided effort to appear unified, are publicly lauding the results. The Organization of African Unity called the process "transparent, credible, free and fair." The presidents of South Africa and Nigeria sent Mugabe warm congratulations. The disingenuous sentiments will only cause Western nations and relief organizations to question the long-term benefits of future assistance to Africa. Without honest brokers for change in the region, there is little point in providing debt relief and development funds.

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