Austin Bay

On the surface, the African Union's critique of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe doesn't sound particularly damning. The AU's statement calls for "respect for human rights and democratic principles in Zimbabwe."

It is rather mild for a scold, and perhaps a touch hypocritical. Africa is rife with human rights abusers, and democracy is rare.

Yet the AU's welcome jab at Mugabe may portend the end of the political "blind eye" given to black-run tyrannies in sub-Saharan Africa.

African democratic movements and reform politicians have suffered from this double standard. On March 11, Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and 50 MDC supporters were attending a prayer meeting in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, when they were arrested and beaten by Mugabe's police.

The "thousand words" of a pain-filled photo featuring Tsvangirai's pummeled, bleeding face did what years of Mugabe-led repression and 1,700 percent a year inflation could not quite do: provoke substantial and effective condemnation by Zimbabwe's neighbors.

That's important, because it denies Mugabe his favorite propaganda ploy -- blaming "imperialist" Great Britain and the United States for Africa's and the world's ills.

But over the last seven years, that tiresome tyrannical media gimmick has worn desperately thin. The 1,700 percent a year inflation isn't only unconscionable, it is incomprehensible unless it is translated from economist-speak (inflation) into its grinding, ground-level reality: mass poverty and starvation in a nation that was once a regional breadbasket. In March 2002, 55 "old" Zimbabwean dollars bought a U.S. dollar. In March 2007, it takes 259,793 "old" Zimbabwean dollars to buy a buck. "Old" crops up because last year Zimbabwe issued a "new" dollar that lopped three zeroes off the inflation-destroyed currency.

Since February 2000, when a "constitutional reform" referendum backed by Mugabe was defeated at the polls, the dictator has pummeled and beaten the entire country. Mugabe responded to that democratic defeat by dispatching his thugs (he calls them "war veterans"). The thugs took control of white-owned farms and began to "re-distribute" the land -- usually to Mugabe supporters. In the process, the thugs also brutalized the MDC, Mugabe's real target.

The "farms" gambit used legitimate historical resentment as camouflage for attacks on his democratic opponents. In May 2000, I wrote a column that argued the defeat of the referendum "clued Mugabe that his regime, in power since 1980, was at risk. The opposition, black-led Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had strength throughout Zimbabwe, through all economic classes and in all tribes."

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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