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Powell: Freeing a Nation From a Tyrant's Grip

Op-Ed on Freeing a Nation From a Tyrant's Grip

Secretary Colin L. Powell New York Times June 24, 2003

A brave man recently met with me and described how life in his country has become unbearable. "There is too much fear in the country, fear of the unknown and fear of the known consequences if we act or speak out," explained Pius Ncube, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Yet Archbishop Ncube speaks out fearlessly about the terrible human rights conditions in Zimbabwe, and is threatened almost every day with detention or worse.

For hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans, the worst has already come. Millions of people are desperately hungry because the country's once-thriving agricultural sector collapsed last year after President Robert Mugabe confiscated commercial farms, supposedly for the benefit of poor blacks. But his cynical "land reform" program has chiefly benefited idle party hacks and stalwarts, not landless peasants. As a result, much of Zimbabwe's most productive land is now occupied by loyalists of the ruling ZANU-PF party, military officers, or their wives and friends.

Worse still, the entire Zimbabwean economy is near collapse. Reckless governmental mismanagement and unchecked corruption have produced annual inflation rates near 300 percent, unemployment of more than 70 percent and widespread shortages of food, fuel and other basic necessities. Is it any wonder that Zimbabweans are demanding political change, or that President Mugabe must rely on stepped-up violence and vote-rigging to remain in office?

On June 6, the police again arrested Mr. Mugabe's most prominent opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai. They paraded him in a courtroom in shackles and leg irons before releasing him on bail on June 20. His offense? Calling for work stoppages and demonstrations to protest economic hardship and political repression.

Like Myanmar's courageous opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Mr. Tsvangirai wages a nonviolent struggle against a ruthless regime. Like the Burmese junta, President Mugabe and his Politburo colleagues have an absolute monopoly of coercive power, but no legitimacy or moral authority. In the long run, President Mugabe and his minions will lose, dragging their soiled record behind them into obscurity. But how long will it take? How many good Zimbabweans will have to lose their jobs, their homes, or even their lives before President Mugabe's violent misrule runs its course?

The United States - and the European Union - has imposed a visa ban on Zimbabwe's leaders and frozen their overseas assets. We have ended all official assistance to the government of Zimbabwe. We have urged other governments to do the same. We will persist in speaking out strongly in defense of human rights and the rule of law. And we will continue to assist directly, in many different ways, the brave men and women of Zimbabwe who are resisting tyranny.

But our efforts are unlikely to succeed quickly enough without greater engagement by Zimbabwe's neighbors. South Africa and other African countries are increasingly concerned and active on Zimbabwe, but they can and should play a stronger and more sustained role that fully reflects the urgency of Zimbabwe's crisis. If leaders on the continent do not do more to convince President Mugabe to respect the rule of law and enter into a dialogue with the political opposition, he and his cronies will drag Zimbabwe down until there is nothing left to ruin - and Zimbabwe's implosion will continue to threaten the stability and prosperity of the region.

There is a way out of the crisis. ZANU-PF and the opposition party can together legislate the constitutional changes to allow for a transition. With the president gone, with a transitional government in place and with a date fixed for new elections, Zimbabweans of all descriptions would, I believe, come together to begin the process of rebuilding their country. If this happened, the United States would be quick to pledge generous assistance to the restoration of Zimbabwe's political and economic institutions even before the election. Other donors, I am sure, would be close behind.

Reading this, Robert Mugabe and his cohorts may cry, "Blackmail." We should ignore them. Their time has come and gone. As Archbishop Ncube has said, "Things in our country can hardly get worse." With the perseverance of brave Zimbabweans, strengthened commitment from their neighbors, and the strong support of the international community, we can rescue the people of Zimbabwe. This is a worthy and urgent goal for us all. [End]

Released on June 24, 2003


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