Leaders need to shout not whisper

Last week President Thabo Mbeki raised optimism about progress in dealing with the political and economic impasse in Zimbabwe.

Mbeki told regional leaders at the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Lusaka, Zambia, that he was making progress as the appointed mediator between the ruling Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

But, despite his optimism, there were already ominous signs.

These included Zimbabwean Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa declaring that there was no need for political change in his country "because we are a democracy".

The chilling effect of Chinamasa's words was compounded by the utterances of Zambia's Information Minister Mike Mulongoti. He said, "Zambia, which has taken over the SADC chairmanship, cannot impose its will on Zimbabwe, just as Zimbabwe cannot impose its will on Zambia. But we can quietly whisper to each other."

For those who are suffering the wrath of Robert Mugabe's intransigence and brutality these words are no comfort at all. To them the words amounted to being told that they should not pin their hopes on the SADC leadership.

For them all the talk about an African century where African leaders develop African solutions for Africa's problems has become hollow.

This week's move by Mugabe's government to resume its bid to amend the constitution to entrench him in power, has not made their plight any easier.

Essentially, the move sabotages the efforts by Mbeki to get the ruling party to talk to the opposition.

The proposed constitutional amendments are aimed at entrenching Mugabe in power while also managing the internal divisions around the party's succession plan.

For example, the amendments give parliament the power to elect Mugabe's successor. The move deals with raging divisions within Zanu-PF where the party leadership is divided on who should take over from Mugabe in the event of him stepping down.

What these developments are doing raise more questions about whether indeed African leaders are able to develop effective solutions to deal with the continent's crises.

Mugabe obviously does not hold the initiatives by SADC to resolve the crisis in his country in high regard.

What he has so far effectively done is to cock a snook at these initiatives. Unfortunately utterances by some leaders that the situation in Zimbabwe is exaggerated do nothing to challenge Mugabe's intransigence.

Instead, what has happened is a tendency among African leaders to continue blaming colonialism for Africa's problems, while absolving themselves from the wrong choices they have made in the post-colonial era.

In dealing with Africa one cannot dismiss the legacy of colonialism and the impact it continues to have in post-colonial societies.

It is, however, not colonialists, but African leaders who are today arresting, beating and even killing their political opponents in the name of democracy.

The uprising by civil society organisations and the opposition in Zimbabwe are prompted by Mugabe's lack of respect for human and political rights.

Also to blame is Mugabe's poor management of the economy where inflation has risen to more than 4700percent and there are severe shortages of basic commodities.

There have been arguments and counter-arguments about what sort of intervention can be made to end the Zimbabwean crisis. Some have argued that the world has no business interfering with the internal affairs of a sovereign state.

Unfortunately, as Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, "this principle is exceptionally convenient for dictators.

"It is a principle that paved the way for the rise of Hitler and Stalin and for the murders ordered by Idi Amin.

"It is a principle that, if consistently observed, would have shielded the apartheid government in South Africa from external criticism and from the economic sanctions and political pressure that forced it to change.

"It is a principle that would have prevented racist Rhodesia from becoming Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe from ever coming to power."

Those who are calling for intervention are obviously not calling for a regime change in Zimbabwe.

They are only calling for the global and regional organisations such as SADC to show their support for human rights and democratic practices in Zimbabwe.

This means they should not whisper in Mugabe's ear when his government uses violence to prevent freedom of expression and association.

They should instead come out to say it is wrong for a leader to use his own people as political pawns in the name of the "struggle against colonial masters".

This also means they should not allow the likes of Chinamasa to use SADC summits as a podium to display political intransigence.

For African leaders, it is their responsibility to make clear their support for the standards enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In this regard the African leaders must heed Tutu's words when he says: "Given Mugabe's consistent unwillingness to respect the legitimate complaints of his people, this is not the time for silent diplomacy.

"This is the time to speak out."