Robert Mugabe: Zimbabwe’s Gaddafi

The world’s eyes are on Libya at the moment, but we should also pay attention to the other end of the African continent, where an equally tyrannical leader, Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, threatens his people — and the region — with violence, draconian law and disaster.\r\n

Like his pal and financier Muammar Gaddafi, Robert Mugabe has used every trick in the book, including political violence and election tampering, to keep himself in power, all to the detriment of his people.

And as popular unrest spreads in Libya, Mugabe’s clearly getting nervous, and has been tightening control of the government, most recently by arresting 46 opponents for watching videos of last month’s uprising in Tunisia and allegedly “subverting” the government.

Many of the detainees claim they have been tortured while in custody, a claim that, considering Mugabe’s ruthlessness, seems more than plausible. The arrests come after an estimated 1,000 members of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Changed, went into hiding for fear of further repression.

Such crackdowns are nothing new. Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party have always used force to suppress the opposition, a fact the State Department notes in its latest report on the nation: “The 2005 [Parliamentary] election process was marred by repressive legislation that limits freedom of speech and assembly; millions of expatriate Zimbabweans were not permitted to vote; the government used food distributions to influence an increasingly hungry population.”

Mugabe’s flagrant abuse has led to long-standing sanctions by both the European Union and the United States against him and his inner circle, sanctions that Mugabe’s now using to drum up support: the leader this week launched a petition that pins his nation’s economic woes on foreign companies. “Sanctions do kill,” the petition claims.

“Zimbabweans should with immediate effect boycott buying products of foreign-owned companies that operate here ,” said Mugabe. “We have to hit back.”

He continued, “We should take those companies and be our own bosses. Let them work under us. We must be masters of our destiny, including our resources.” Mugabe’s petition insists that foreign companies hand over a majority share of control to him and his cronies.

While Mugabe, who reportedly sent troops to Libya to help defend Gaddafi’s regime, would like the world to believe Zimbabweans are in his corner, ‘Christian Science Monitor’ journalist yesterday that he in fact forced people to sign the 87-year-old despot’s petition: “Today, hundreds of people were forced to come out of their homes to sign a petition aimed at convincing the international community to end targeted economic sanctions against Mugabe and his inner circle of ZANU-PF leaders, and thousands were herded off to Harare stadium to hear Mugabe give a speech.”

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who has a tenuous power-sharing agreement with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party after the 2008 elections, which Mugabe lost by about five points yet refused to concede, has come out swinging against the sanction battle, saying: “First of all we have to be clear that today’s (Wednesday) program was a ZANU-PF function,” he said, before noting that Mugabe’s latest crackdown was meant to hinder a planned “million man march” against his rule.

He also characterized the petition organizers as “thugs who do not respect the rule of law.”

The popular support Mugabe hopes to project has also been eroded by the steady stream of refugees fleeing his country, mostly to South Africa: more than 275,000 Zimbabweans applied for work visas in that country last year, and the tensions between them and South African citizens have more than once erupted in xenophobic violence.

As Gaddafi, Egypt’s deposed leader Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s ousted President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali have learned, coercive regimes can only last so long, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Mugabe suddenly found himself under siege by the people he claims to represent.

If that happens, all bets are off: Mugabe will fight back with all the force he can muster, a possibility that could throw his country, and perhaps the region, into upheaval.

The U.S. government, and indeed the world, needs to keep its eyes on Mugabe, because this particular dictator deserves just as much scrutiny as the Arab leaders over which we continue to fret. – DT