NIGERIA, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, Gabon, the list of candidates for the title “least democratic in Africa” is not confined to Zimbabwe.
While Robert Mugabe has been singled out for condemnation, leaders of other autocratic states have largely been able to avoid sanctions and isolation. Many have friends in Western capitals. Or play a strategic role in the war on terror. Or sit on oil.
With corrupt and authoritarian governments close to the norm on the continent, it is not surprising that African leaders urged by the West to censure Mugabe at the recent African Union summit in Egypt instead welcomed him with hugs.
As Mugabe himself has asked: How many African leaders could point a clean finger at him? How many held a better election than his one-man run-off that followed a campaign of terror?
Many African leaders appear to harbour a secret admiration for Mugabe as a man who can thumb his nose at the West and point out its perceived hypocrisies, like the Bush administrationâ€™s appeals for human rights in Zimbabwe while running the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.
“We Africans should learn a lesson from this,” Gambian President Yahya Jammeh said in praising Mugabeâ€™s election last week. “They (the West) think they can dictate to us and this is not acceptable. Africans should stand for Zimbabwe. After all, what did the West do for Africa?” said Jammeh, a former army colonel who seized power in a 1994 coup.
Itâ€™s easy to forget that just a decade ago, much of Africa was gripped by hope as a wave of democracy swept the continent.
It began with the extraordinary sight of protesters in the West African state of Benin taking hammers to a statue of Lenin. Within three years, 26 countries had held multiparty presidential elections on a continent known for one-man rule. When elections in South Africa ended white minority rule in 1994, there was not one single-party state left in sub-Saharan Africa. Western nations tied aid to free elections and severed ties with dictators they had supported in the name of the fight against communism.
But that decade of optimism, backed by theories that opening up socialist economies to the free market would help pull Africa out of poverty, has come to an end and the democracy movement has stalled.
Today, more than half of Africa is ruled by despots, including many offering the illusion of democracy with elections like those Mugabe held.
Rights activists put much of the blame on the West.
“It seems Washington and European governments will accept even the most dubious election so long as the â€˜victorâ€™ is a strategic or commercial ally,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a recent report.
Among countries he singled out as sham democracies were oil-rich Chad and Nigeria; Uganda, whose President Yoweri Museveniâ€™s friendship with US president George W Bush has shielded him from criticism; and Ethiopia, the strategically located Horn of Africa nation that is a major US ally in the war on terrorism.
Other oil producers that have managed to avoid international condemnation include Angola, which hasnâ€™t held a presidential election since 1992, and Gabon, whose president Omar Bongo seized power in a 1967 coup and who is the continentâ€™s longest-serving leader.
“Countries that have made a point of overtly aligning themselves with US narratives and policies regarding terrorism appear to have benefited not only from financial and military support but seem successfully to have diverted attention away from their internal poor governance and human rights abuse,” said Akwe Amosu, senior analyst at Washingtonâ€™s Open Society Institute.
Much of the Westâ€™s focus on Zimbabwe is tied up in the sadness of seeing one of Africaâ€™s great success stories fall apart so completely.
When Mugabe led Zimbabwe to Independence, the country already had developed industries and an agricultural base that made it near self-sufficient because of years of UN sanctions imposed on the white supremacist regime of Ian Smith.
Mugabe abandoned his guerilla movementâ€™s policies of “scientific socialism” that involved nationalising industries and land, encouraging a fairly free economy that grew and allowed him to make major investments in education and health care.
Zimbabwe blossomed and became a showcase for the continent and was seen as an example to then white-ruled South Africa of an economic and multiracial success created by a black man. But the worldâ€™s high hopes were short-lived.
In 2000, Mugabe began violently seizing white farmersâ€™ land out of revenge for their refusal to support a referendum to consolidate his power. That led to the collapse of the commercial farming sector that exported food to neighbours.
Zimbabweâ€™s economic meltdown has left a third of Zimbabweans hungry and caused inflation to run at a mind-boggling 9,5 million percent.
But while Mugabe has presided over this catastrophe, he continues to cast a spell over many of his fellow African leaders.
Zimbabwe is “the single greatest challenge … in southern Africa, not only because of its terrible humanitarian consequences but also because of the dangerous political precedent it sets”, said UN deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro, Tanzaniaâ€™s former foreign minister. â€” kubatana.net.