For once Robert Mugabe did not get the unanimous support that he hoped for when he attended the African Union Summit in Egypt last week, after winning a farcical one-man election on 27 June.
While the African Union provided him with the semblance of public legitimacy he was looking for, a number of leaders at the summit broke rank and criticized his brutal regime. Such criticism is a welcome step from African leaders who have in the past been reticent in their criticism of Mugabe and his actions. But this criticism needs to turn into action if they are to save Zimbabweans from the violence and repression that has plagued their country for the past eight years.
Between March and May 2008, I undertook several missions to Zimbabwe for Human Rights Watch to investigate and document the violence that Mugabe had unleashed on the country after his defeat to Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), during the 29 March 29 general elections.
I gathered comprehensive evidence of widespread abuses by ruling ZANU-PF party supporters, members of the security forces and so-called war veterans who beat, abducted, tortured, killed and arbitrarily arrested thousands of Zimbabweans who supported the MDC.
Even Tsvangirai’s eventual withdrawal from the run-off race – due to the violence and intimidation – did not bring an end to the abuses. Human Rights Watch documented numerous incidents of beatings, intimidation and torture until the eve of the run-off. By polling day itself at least 85 people had been killed and almost 5,000 were brutally beaten and tortured.
The violence was so blatant electoral observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) said that the run-off would not be free and fair. Western countries threatened Mugabe with extended sanctions and isolation if he went ahead with the vote, and African leaders urged him to postpone the election.
With typical defiance and contempt Mugabe went ahead with the run-off and was declared winner. Perhaps he knew what to expect when a couple of days later he confidently attended the African Union (AU) Summit in Egypt. That once again, African leaders would fail to translate their tough rhetoric against his regime into action.
At the end of the summit, the AU issued a weak resolution that essentially rewarded Mugabe’s intransigence and his brutal methods. Not only did the AU ignore Mugabe’s responsibility for the widespread violence, it failed to recognize the illegitimacy of his presidency. Instead, the resolution simply called for negotiations between the two political parties, as if all the violence had never happened. The resolution also endorsed SADC’s hopelessly ineffectual mediation efforts under President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa.
The failure of the AU to hold Mugabe to account for the violence will do little to allay the genuine fear of many Zimbabweans that the repression and brutality will continue. Despite a lull in the violence in the days after the run-off, Human Rights Watch has gathered evidence that ZANU-PF supporters and war veterans continue to rampage through Zimbabwe’s provinces looting shops, destroying property and spreading fear around the country.
The continued existence of war veteran and youth militia torture camps and bases around the country are an ominous sign that the violence may erupt once again. In addition, hundreds of MDC activists remain in police custody facing spurious charges.
Pretoria’s continued engagement in the mediation process also raises serious concerns. Mbeki’s previous attempts at mediation have yielded few concrete results. There has been no end to the violence and he failed to deliver on his promise of ensuring uncontested free and fair elections on 29 March. He is no longer viewed as a neutral mediator by the MDC, and has time and again allowed Mugabe to drive the agenda of the mediation process.
Mbeki also has often stated that it is up to Zimbabweans to solve their own problems without outside intervention. Well, on 29 March, Zimbabweans courageously took matters in their own hands and voted for change, and for that, they were brutally murdered, beaten and tortured. This is the strongest signal that political intervention by African states is needed to protect Zimbabweans and end the political and human rights crisis.
Zimbabweans need more than empty rhetoric from African leaders. Instead of merely calling for negotiations, the African leaders must do more to end the violence and repression. They must place the responsibility for the violence firmly on Mugabe’s doorstep, and call for an immediate investigation into the widespread abuses. Those found responsible must play no part in any future government resulting from the negotiations, but should be brought to justice.
African leaders must also look beyond Mbeki as the key mediator in the crisis, and seek to appoint a team of mediators with specific human rights benchmarks and timelines for overseeing the negotiations.
These benchmarks must include ensuring an end to the violence, and a return to the rule of law, including the disarming of militias and war veterans, dismantling of torture camps and the release of opposition and civil society activists who have been arbitrarily detained by the government.
On 29 March, the people of Zimbabwe expressed their desire for change. African leaders must not let them down.
The author is a Senior Researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch