JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Nigeria. Rwanda. Uganda. Ethiopia. Gabon.
The list of candidates for “least democratic country in Africa” is not confined to Zimbabwe.
While Robert Mugabe has been singled out for condemnation, leaders of other autocratic states have largely been able to avoid sanctions and isolation. Many have friends in Western capitals. Or play a role in the war on terror. Or sit on oil.
With corrupt and authoritarian governments close to the norm on the continent, it is not surprising that African leaders urged by the West to censure Mugabe at a recent summit instead welcomed him with hugs.
Mugabe himself has asked: How many African leaders can point a finger at him? How many held a better election than his one-man runoff that followed a campaign of terror?
Many leaders appear to harbor admiration for Mugabe as a man who can thumb his nose at the West and point out its perceived hypocrisies, like the Bush administration’s appeals for human rights in Zimbabwe while running the Guantanamo Bay prisoner camp.
“They [the West] think they can dictate to us and this is not acceptable. Africans should stand for Zimbabwe. After all, what did the West do for Africa?” said Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, a former army colonel who seized power in a 1994 coup.
Just a decade ago, much of Africa was gripped by hope as a wave of democracy swept the continent.
But that decade of optimism has come to an end and the democracy movement has stalled. Today, more than half of Africa is ruled by despots, including many offering the illusion of democracy with elections like those Mugabe held.
Rights activists put much of the blame on the West.
“It seems Washington and European governments will accept even the most dubious election so long as the ‘victor’ is a strategic or commercial ally,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a recent report.
Among countries he singled out as sham democracies were oil-rich Chad and Nigeria; Uganda, whose President Yoweri Museveni’s friendship with President Bush has shielded him from criticism; and Ethiopia, the strategically located nation that is a major U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.
Other oil producers that have avoided condemnation include Angola, which hasn’t held a presidential election since 1992, and Gabon, whose President Omar Bongo seized power in a 1967 coup and who is the continent’s longest-serving leader.
“Countries that have made a point of overtly aligning themselves with U.S. narratives and policies regarding terrorism appear to have benefited not only from financial and military support but seem successfully to have diverted attention away from their internal poor governance and human rights abuse,” said Akwe Amosu, senior analyst at Washington’s Open Society Institute.
Much of the West’s focus on Zimbabwe is tied up in the sadness of seeing one of Africa’s great success stories fall apart so completely.
When Mugabe led Zimbabwe to independence, the country already had developed industries and an agricultural base that made it near self-sufficient because of years of U.N. sanctions imposed over the white supremacist regime of Ian Smith.
Mugabe abandoned his guerrilla movement’s policies of “scientific socialism” that involved nationalizing industries and land, encouraging a fairly free economy that grew and allowed him to make major investments in education and health care.
Zimbabwe blossomed and became a showcase for the continent and was seen as an example to then white-ruled South Africa of an economic and multiracial success created by a black man. But the world’s high hopes were short-lived.
In 2000, Mugabe began violently seizing white farmers’ land out of revenge for their refusal to support a referendum to consolidate his power. That led to the collapse of the commercial farming sector that exported food to neighbors.
Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown has left a third of Zimbabweans hungry and caused inflation to run at a mind-boggling 4 million percent.
But while Mugabe has presided over catastrophe, he continues to cast a spell over many fellow leaders.
Zimbabwe is “the single greatest challenge … in southern Africa, not only because of its terrible humanitarian consequences but also because of the dangerous political precedent it sets,” said U.N. deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro, Tanzania’s former foreign minister.
Abdoulie John, an Associated Press reporter in Banjul, Gambia, contributed to this report.
Michelle Faul is chief of Africa news for The Associated Press.
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presidential runoff. More »
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