A few clear-sighted African leaders are speaking out in favour of robust intervention in Zimbabwe. Raila Odinga, Kenya’s prime minister, Desmond Tutu, the Nobel laureate, and Seretse Ian Khama, president of Botswana, are foremost among them. This is not yet cause for hope.
Even as tens of thousands of Zimbabweans fall victim to cholera, the sad truth is that those governments in southern Africa capable of acting decisively against Robert Mugabe are unwilling to do so. Worse, some appear to be swinging back behind his vile regime. No amount of hand-wringing by Britain and the US is going to change this. Rather, it is time to toughen up the rules.
Three months ago Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s former president and the mediator in Zimbabwe, brokered a power-sharing agreement. For this to resolve the crisis and create confidence at home and among international donors, it was obligatory that Mr Mugabe hand real authority quickly to Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader and designated prime minister. Predictably, he has not. Nor has the inter-governmental Southern African Development Community applied the pressure necessary to oblige him.
Mr Mugabe is under pressure but from different quarters. The banking system is imploding. Hospitals, schools, electricity and water supplies have ceased to function. Even the army is beginning to crack as soldiers protest against the worthless currency they are paid in. One consequence of the collapse of the state is starvation. Another is disease, and cholera is only the latest epidemic.
By stepping in unconditionally to treat these symptoms, aid agencies and western governments, led by Britain, are taking a risk. All too often in Africa the delivery of high-protein biscuits and foreign doctors with medicine creates the false assurance that something is being done. But if such measures relieve pressure on Mr Mugabe, what end will they ultimately serve? Vital as it may be to stem the suffering, a humanitarian response can be no substitute for tough political action.
It is time for the wider world to stiffen the consequences of intransigence both by Mr Mugabe and by those southern African governments giving him succour. If the world is going to clear up the catastrophe he is creating for the region, there has to be a quid pro quo. Ideally this should be his resignation. Since power-sharing is proving a non-starter, fresh elections conducted under international supervision may be an alternative. Nothing can be left off the table. Simply calling for Mr Mugabe to go will not make him vanish.