Fergal Keane: Stop Mr Mugabe turning Zimbabwe into a bloodbath

'The interests of the big powers are so all-consuming that any tyranny can go on without any action'
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Only this week President George Bush was telling us again that we lived in a world that would never be the same again. There is some truth in that, but I sense that Mr Bush is talking in strictly limited terms. When he refers to the changed world, he of course sees it in terms of American interests. Not for him the evangelical universalism espoused by Tony Blair at the Labour Party conference, the world in which Africa would no longer be a scar on the conscience of the world. Mr Bush has no interest in becoming a latter-day Woodrow Wilson. As he himself has put it, the war is defined in terms of simple opposites, a battle between good and evil in which those who are not "with us" are "against us".

The United States may exert pressure for change in different parts of the world, such as the Middle East, but only where American interests are directly affected. Does anybody believe that Ariel Sharon would be feeling serious American pressure to start talking with the Palestinians were it not for the need to shore up support for the war in moderate Arab states – or at least neutralise their active opposition?

One can forgive the Israelis a certain amount of bewilderment when they find themselves faced with a White House apparently full of zeal for a peace settlement. Where was that passion in the first months of the Bush presidency? As for the rest of the world, with all its little wars and tyrannies... How much of that forlorn landscape have we read about or seen on our screens in the past month?

There is no "new" world, only the old one with new fears. All foreign policy emanating from Washington is now defined in terms of the "war on terror". Take the case of Colombia, where last week the US declared that the war against left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries was a new front line in the struggle against terrorism. Would that it were so simple. But having framed the conflict in this way, the US will step up military assistance and find itself dragged into the mire of a vicious civil war. Accusing the questioner of being soft on terror can quickly neutralise any criticism of this, just as early voices raised against the war in Vietnam were denounced as pro-Communist.

Just as in the Cold War, the interests of the big powers are so all-consuming that any amount of tyranny can go on without any imperative for action. I find it hard to believe the West will intervene to stop another genocide in Africa when its military force is so preoccupied with events in Afghanistan and – within the next year – almost certainly in Iraq. Remember the promises about Rwanda never being allowed to happen again? Just this week in Burundi Hutu rebel groups and the Tutsi army were slaughtering each other and numerous civilians in a conflict that has been described as a "slow genocide". The only peacekeepers in the country are a lightly armed South African VIP protection force.

The most troubling situation is in Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe must be overjoyed at the lack of international attention. This week his henchmen have been threatening legal action to close the excellent Daily News, arguably the bravest newspaper on the planet. A regime notorious for its indifference to law and order has drummed up a politically motivated charge to try and silence The Daily News. The newspaper represents everything that Mr Bush and Mr Blair proclaim as essential values of civilisation: it is truthful, espouses political and social tolerance, and is courageous in defence of these values.

In addition, Mr Mugabe's government has let it be known that no western monitors will be allowed into Zimbabwe to ensure that the presidential election has some chance of being free and fair. The EU has been told it is not welcome – a fine thank-you for the decades of bilateral aid the Mugabe regime has enjoyed. With the threats against The Daily News and the rejection of monitors, Mr Mugabe is paving the way for an election that promises to be an exercise in violent intimidation. The terrible violence that accompanied the parliamentary elections and a recent by-election were a foretaste of what the heavies in Harare are planning for the big contest.

A friend of mine who monitored the by-election described travelling to polling stations with some EU diplomats and being threatened to "leave or else" by ruling party officials. They were followed by so-called war veterans, and when they tried to buy a copy of The Daily News they were told that the paper was no longer for sale in the area.

At the time of independence Zimbabwe was the bread basket of the region. Today it is sliding towards a catastrophe. Yet all of this is being watched by the EU, the Commonwealth and the White House without any obvious sign of the dramatic response that is needed. I didn't hear a squeak of outrage, as distinct from restrained muttering, when the threat to close The Daily News became public.

Two months back Britain offered to pay £36m to finance a land redistribution scheme on condition it was carried out legally. That meant an end to land invasions and intimidation by "war veterans". The ink was hardly dry when Mr Mugabe's warriors were rampaging on to commercial farms. Since the Commonwealth-sponsored accord, an estimated 680 farms have been invaded. The Commonwealth itself has been repeatedly humiliated by Mr Mugabe, but it refuses to expel Zimbabwe.

There is a great irony in this. It was in Harare in the early 1990s that the Commonwealth adopted a declaration in favour of good governance. I was there to watch the leaders solemnly intone their commitment to principles of openness and accountability. Mr Mugabe was the smiling and gracious host.

The time for action on Zimbabwe is running out. The presidential election must be held before April and Mr Mugabe will do anything to stay in power. And anything means a lot of violence and intimidation. Those with longer memories will remember how Mr Mugabe's army slaughtered its way through Matabeleland just after independence. This is a man capable of extreme ruthlessness and nobody in power in the West can claim ignorance if the election turns into a bloodbath. Such is the fear of violence that most foreign monitors would likely choose to stay away, even if Mr Mugabe were to invite them.

One possible road for the international community is to tell Mr Mugabe that unless he accepts a large and representative monitoring force the results of the election will not be recognised. This would prove a difficult choice for a country such as South Africa, turning against an African neighbour in so dramatic a fashion. But the alternative is a disaster for human rights and the African continent. The South African president needs to lead the way on this. The West might provide money to rebuild Zimbabwe, but the real pressure – economic and even potentially military – must come from Pretoria. In a world where the big powers are preoccupied with their own war on terrorism, Thabo Mbeki must attend to the terror to his north. It might be the best thing his country ever does for the continent it dominates. And it would be a lot wiser than waiting for the White House to ride to the rescue.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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