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Critics Call for End of "Peer Shielding"of President Robert Mugabe

An international conflict prevention organization says the Southern African Development Community should stop what it calls “peer shielding” of Zimbabwe. The International Crisis Group, or ICG, wants more pressure on Zimbabwe to guarantee that next year’s parliamentary elections will be free and fair.

Peter Kagwanja is the director of the ICG’s Southern Africa Project in Pretoria, South Africa. English to Africa reporter William Eagle spoke with him about the elections and about how African democrats can encourage change in Zimbabwe. Mr. Kagwanja, who is originally from Kenya, says he sees a gradual change in the way African leaders view Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe. For example, he notes that in July, the African Union criticized Zimbabwe’s human rights record; in August, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) passed principles and guidelines governing democratic elections; and, he says within Zimbabwe itself, civil society is growing stronger in its calls for greater democracy. He credits pressure from Zimbabwean civil society for a recent ruling that found opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai not guilty of treason – a charge made by the government. Meanwhile, in South Africa, two important allies of the government – the COSATU labor movement and the Communist Party -- have come out against President Tabo Mbeki’s policy of quiet diplomacy toward the oppressive human rights policies of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe.

There is also the beginning of electoral reforms in Zimbabwe. In Harare, opposition and ruling party members are discussing such reforms as extending polling hours and guaranteeing the right of the opposition to the state media. Zimbabwe’s Justice Minister has said he has already agreed to use “translucent ballot boxes” for next March’s parliamentary elections. But Mr. Kagwanja of the International Crisis Group says electoral reforms must be accompanied by political ones – such as the repeal of repressive laws that make the electoral field uneven. He says electoral reforms “only produce a "C- " election – one that appears to be fair but made fraudulent “ due to many months of repressive laws, attacks by ruling party militias, the absence of media freedom, and the abuse of human rights.

Robert Rotberg – the director of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government program on intrastate conflict and president of the World Peace Foundations -- has called for South African president Thabo Mbeki to offer President Mugabe safe passage to Namibia ahead of elections in an effort to promote a smooth transition to democracy. But Mr. Kagwanja of the ICG says that’s not likely to happen, nor is any military involvement in removing the Zimbabwean leader. He notes that within Zimbabwe, the country’s own military supports him. Mr. Kagwanja says the best strategy is to use next year’s parliamentary elections as a stepping stone for electing the opposition in the presidential elections two years later when he says many believe will not include President Mugabe.

The government of Zimbabwe has been critical of non-governmental organizations within Zimbabwe, and those on the outside like the International Crisis Group. They are accused of being Western funded efforts to destabilize a government whose legitimacy comes from President Mugabe’s role as a liberation fighter for independence from Great Britain. News reports quote Zimbabwe’s foreign minister as saying his government “will not become gullible victims of ….’genetically modified propaganda’ …fanned….by reactionary forces to discredit [the] elections.”

But Peter Kagwanja says he and other Africans fighting for change in Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa are not “reactionaries.” He concedes that his group is largely funded by international foundations, and by Scandanavian countries, along with others. On the other hand, he says the ICG has been equally vocal in calls for democratic change in countries like Kenya. He notes that Zimbabwe also accepts Western funding from the International Monetary Fund. Mr. Kagwanja says the important question to ask is “are we doing the right thing ?”