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."
"Urban renewal" has been another subterfuge. In 2005, Mugabe's Operation "Murambatsvina" (a Shona phrase meaning "drive out the trash") literally erased opposition neighborhoods. An estimated 700,000 people lost their homes and their livelihoods.
Now, Mugabe intends to change Zimbabwe's constitution. His term as president runs out in 2008, but he wants to remain in charge at least until 2010. Over the years, Mugabe's ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front) Party has been a reliable prop for his regime. However, his move to keep the office until 2010 has ignited some opposition among younger party members.
Many Zimbabweans believe this nascent opposition could produce a political opportunity, if disgruntled ZANU-PF members can find common ground with the Tsvangirai's MDC. The MDC has international moral capital and international media credibility.
Mugabe, however, still controls the guns.
Forging a new internal Zimbabwean political consensus is absolutely vital, not only for Zimbabwe but for the rest of southern Africa. A civil war in Zimbabwe will have tribal overtones, with Mugabe's dominant Shona tribe likely providing the core of "pro-Mugabe" fighters. The Congo provides a bitter example: In sub-Saharan Africa, tribal wars all too easily spill over borders, which risks regional war. Wars in developing nations quickly erase decades of economic progress.
The United States and European Union are considering a package of economic sanctions that will affect Mugabe without punishing Zimbabwe's people, but that is a difficult formula that diplomats and bankers have yet to perfect.
The key actor is South Africa, the local regional power. South Africa needs to promote peaceful political change in Zimbabwe, publicly and forcefully. And that means easing, then releasing, Mugabe's grip on power.