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Liberia's President Joins African Voices in Dissent Over Zimbabwe

Robert Mugabe’s command of the outcome of Zimbabwe’s June 27 presidential election runoff appears to be producing a split between African leaders who accept the results and those speaking out against them. During a visit to South Africa last week in both high level meetings and public statements, Liberia’s democratically elected President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf clearly sided with other West African leaders from Senegal and Sierra Leone in condemning the Mugabe victory. (Rwanda’s government also condemned the vote.) President Sirleaf, who was voted into power in 2005 at the end of a long and bitter civil war, also became the first African head of state to speak out on behalf of last week’s ill-fated sanctions move against Harare that failed to win passage in the UN Security Council.

Africa researcher Emira Woods of Washington’s Institute for Policy Studies has been following the Liberian leader’s efforts to raise conditions for African rulers to achieve power and govern their people through democratic means. She points out that Mrs. Sirleaf is one of a growing number of African voices to speak out for the people of Zimbabwe.

“Right now, all of the African voices, whether it is Liberia or Tanzania or Botswana, you have voices in very senior leadership at the head of state level in a number of countries that are calling for an end to the leadership chaos that is Zimbabwe today. And I think you have had many countries that recognize that right now, after the experience, the political history of Zimbabwe coming out of white rule, that it is incumbent on African leadership to show the path toward peace. Clearly, you have had voices from Nelson Mandela, the Bishop Tutu, Jacob Zuma. Again, around the continent, it has been Botswana, Tanzania as the head of the African Union, country after country has risen up to say there has to be a respect for the rule of law in Zimbabwe,” she said.

Woods says the violence that forced the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to drop out of the race less than a week before the runoff, leaving ZANU-PF candidate Mugabe as the only choice on the ballot, was not a reflection of the rule of the people and could only be corrected by adopting a number of remedial measures.

“What is needed, as the African Union (AU) has suggested, is a political resolution to this crisis that first stops the violent attacks against innocent civilians, that second, sets up a provisional governing authority, and that third, creates a path that leads to free and fair elections,” she notes.

President Sirleaf’s visit enabled the West African leader to share with South African officials and high profile members of the Southern African community Liberia’s experience of emerging from violent authoritarian rule under two dictators. Emira Woods says that the unresolved standoff between MDC and ZANU-PF was an opportunity for President Sirleaf to make her case for restoring self-determination to the people through their ability to choose their governors freely at the polls.

“Especially now, with all the issues around Zimbabwe on how to bring resolution and democracy, the example of Liberia after transitioning from a disastrous civil war and social conflict to a path that has brought peace and democracy, I think these are some of the lessons that she may be trying to offer,” said Woods.

Another lesson learned at UN headquarters, despite President Sirleaf’s comments in South Africa embracing international sanctions against Harare, was the UN Security Council’s rejection of the US and British-sponsored sanctions resolution. Woods says she was not surprised by the diplomatic defeat.

“It is not a surprise that the sanctions did not pass. The sanctions were put forward very much by the Bush administration in a week when the US essentially launched a military action in Czechoslovakia setting up anti-US missile bases there at the time of putting forward this resolution at the UN Security Council. It is not surprising that Russia will say no,” she maintained.

Despite the setback, hopes for a political breakthrough on Zimbabwe now shift back to the African continent, where Zimbabwe’s next door neighbors are also trying to overcome the economic strains of absorbing thousands of displaced Zimbabweans. Emira Woods says that world powers need to give the African countries more time to work out their differences over Zimbabwe and take the lead of the African Union in formulating a credible, lasting end to the crisis.

“Because of Zimbabwe’s history of white rule, it is critical that there be African leadership for a resolution for peace, and the African leadership is being advanced by individual countries. It’s also being advanced by the African Union. And so there is a role for the international community to play, but that role must be in support of the African Union and their efforts towards peaceful resolution of this crisis,” she said.