On March 10 the citizens of a small African country went to the polls to cast their votes for an incumbent with a reputation as one of the continent's most unreconstructed tyrants, a man who used every form of trickery in the book to secure his re-election. Zimbabwe? No. I refer to the equatorial Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), which held its presidential election on the very same weekend as Zimbabwe's. Military strongman Denis Sassou-Nguesso was re-elected by a 90 percent landslide after his major opponent pulled out of the race the day before the elections, citing irregularities and urging his supporters to boycott. One such irregularity was Sassou-Nguesso's refusal to establish an independent election body to oversee the voting.
Observing the results in Zimbabwe and Congo, the respected Kenyan publisher Barrack Muluka has written in the East African Standard that "the continent of Africa abounds with miscarried and defrauded electoral history" and that the vote in Africa, when it happens at all, "can only be described as electoral fiction." Wondering why the West barely noted the Congo results, Muluka asks: "Is it possible for Tony Blair to admit that his concern over Zimbabwe arises first and last out of the fact that Mugabe has been messing up with the White population in that country?" Muluka concludes that he is as sickened by the hypocrisy of the West as he is by "the autocracy of the Mugabes of the world."
Zambia's recent elections were disputed, and Madagascar is in the throes of civil unrest because the incumbent there, Didier Ratsiraka, refuses to leave office after having been voted out. With a few shining exceptions (Senegal, South Africa, Botswana and, perhaps, Nigeria and Ghana), Muluka is right. Why, then, the fuss over Zimbabwe? Muluka provides part of the answer: The fact that there is a sizable white settler population in Zimbabwe and a steady diet, for the international media, of dead white farmers means there's a human interest dimension to the Zimbabwean story that poor Congo can't match. Did you know, for example, that 10,000 Congolese were killed in the civil war that brought Sassou-Nguesso to power in 1997 and that his ensuing repression displaced nearly a third of the country's 3 million citizens?
But Afrophobia aside, there are other, more honorable reasons for the world's current obsession with Zimbabwe's tragic descent into chaos. When Mugabe came to power in 1980, he was to many Western Afrophiles a shining light, a vision of reconciliation (he urged whites to stay and work with him) and a mark of the triumph of pragmatism over ideology (he was, in a nutshell, anti-Soviet). The generation now making policy in the West marched against Rhodesia and then marched for the brave new world Mugabe symbolized. His plummet into kleptocracy and tyranny signifies nothing short of betrayal for the Blair cohort of once-were-lefties.
And then there is Thabo Mbeki. The South African president has spent the past two years circumnavigating the globe peddling his New Partnership for African Development, which has as its precondition the achievement of African self-determination through democracy. When the Organization of African Unity approved the plan last year, Mbeki wrote that this "marked the moment when Africa took its destiny into its own hands for the first time in 500 years."
Mbeki acknowledged that Africans had said this before but explained how things are different from the moment of African independence in the early 1960s: We were no longer pawns in the cold war, and "corrupt and dictatorial leaders [could] no longer count on the patronage and protection of superpowers intent on maintaining a particular global balance of power and influence, which enabled the Mobutus of this world to thrive for decades."
And so Zimbabwe has become a litmus test for Mbeki's own aspirations: for South Africa (which, because of the "Mandela miracle," still carries the world's expectations for this continent) and for the unfettered African future Mbeki so publicly dreams of. Zimbabwe's 2002 election will be remembered as the moment at which Africa needed to make up its mind.
Mugabe has alienated the West, but he does seem to be able to count--with a couple of noble exceptions--on Africa's own ruling elite, including Mbeki's ANC. On March 19, however, Mbeki and his colleague, Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, joined Australian Prime Minister John Howard in agreeing to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth. Have they, by doing this, exercised the self-determination Mbeki calls for? Or are they--as Mugabe's apologists would have it--colonial lackeys who have succumbed to racists with checkbooks?
Mbeki is in a tight spot. Chaos in Zimbabwe cannot but affect the whole region, and so, to date, his approach has been conciliatory. He understands, in a way that Tony Blair never could, that a Mugabe defeat would have spelled a bloody civil war. But it does not help Mbeki's case that he has not, at this writing, made any public pronouncement of his own.
Only when--as Mbeki himself has so compellingly put it--Africans really do start policing themselves, will shrill (and possibly racist) voices from the West begin to recede in significance. And only then will the ordinary people of countries like Zimbabwe really have a stab at the self-determination most people in the West take as their God-given right.