Pressure on Mugabe increases as Zimbabwe nears Breaking Point

Yesterday morning, President Bush lent his voice to a growing global call for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to step down. Bush's statement followed similar demands made by the European Union and a call from UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown for the international community to defend human rights and democracy in Zimbabwe. This toughened rhetoric from Western leaders has been accompanied by a tightening of restrictions on the Zimbabwean government -- last week the EU expanded its travel ban to 11 more Zimbabwean officials and in late November, the US extended sanctions against four individuals and 20 companies who have been financially supporting Mugabe's government.

This renewed pressure on Mugabe comes as evidence of the deteriorating situation inside Zimbabwe emerges -- the country's collapsed water and sanitation infrastructure has led to a cholera outbreak which has already claimed the lives of nearly 600 and the World Health Organization warns might infect up to 6,000 in a worst-case scenario. A lack of doctors, equipment and treatment (oral rehydration salts which cost as little as 50 cents per dose) means the fatality rate is much higher than usual. Aid agencies are estimating that cholera patients in Zimbabwe are ten times more likely to die than patients living elsewhere.

The outbreak is the latest update to a long list of evidence on how failed governance and gross economic mismanagement have destroyed what was once one of Africa's most promising countries. In the years after independence, Zimbabwe was hailed as a regional breadbasket and boasted one of Africa's highest literacy rates. Today, on top of skyrocketing inflation and an ongoing political crisis, Zimbabweans face acute food shortages and an education system in shambles: the World Food Program anticipates that half of Zimbabwe's population (over 5 million people) will be in need of emergency food aid in January and as of October, students in Zimbabwe had only been in the classroom for a total of 23 uninterrupted days.

The question now is whether global outcry over the cholera epidemic is just the latest in a series of grievances against the Mugabe regime or the tipping point needed to inject new momentum towards a real and lasting solution. Importantly, increased pressure from Western governments has been echoed by some key African leaders -- last week, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga called for Mugabe's removal and in November, the leader of South Africa's African National Congress, Jacob Zuma, indicated a tougher stance towards the Zimbabwean government, saying the situation had moved beyond "wait and see", and that ""We have got to act and act now." The fact that the epidemic is spilling over into neighboring countries could mean voices like these might become stronger in the days ahead.

These African voices are vital in moving toward a lasting solution for Zimbabwe. Although emergency aid could help ease the cholera epidemic and fill food shortages, Zimbabwe's current plight is the product of a long-term socioeconomic demise that only the establishment of a functioning and inclusive government can resolve (as noted by the Elders last week after their visit to the region). Ultimately, such a solution will depend on Zimbabwe's neighbors. Mugabe has weathered sanctions and pressure from the West for years. Now, as his country tips towards a breaking point, the onus is on African leaders to turn rhetoric into action and renew efforts towards ending the crisis. The rest of the world should be poised and ready so that once this happens, Zimbabwe has the support it needs to stand a real chance at winning back some of the development gains it lost after 28 years of Mugabe's rule.

-- Nora Coghlan, ONE Policy Analyst

(This was cross posted from the ONE Blog.)