Tsvangirai Decision Underscores Nation's Political Crisis

A politically divided Zimbabwe is reacting to news that opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is ending his run for president, after a bloody election season. Akwe Amosu, an expert on African affairs at the Open Society Policy Center discusses what Tsvangirai's decision says about politics and power in Zimbabwe.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going to continue our conversation about the situation in Zimbabwe now with Akwe Omosu. She's the senior policy analyst for Africa at the Open Society Policy Center. She was kind enough to join us here in our studio in Washington. Welcome, thank you for stopping in.

Ms. AKWE OMOSU (Senior Policy Analyst for Africa, Open Society Policy Center): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: I know that your primary task is building civil society institutions around, sort of, the continent, but I did want to ask you, what's your take on Mr. Tsvangirai's decision to withdraw? He says that the election is a sham, that it would be wrong to legitimize it, especially because the cost to his supporters has already been so high. But you also heard reporter Jeff Barbee say that the disinformation is so pervasive that many people might not even know that he has withdrawn, and they might wind up legitimizing the results anyway.

Ms. OMOSU: You know, by Friday they probably will know. We're right at the beginning of the week. Zimbabweans are sadly now very used to having to rely on, you know, informal means to get their information, but they do listen very extensively to the outside radio stations. I think they'll know by Friday.

MARTIN: Do you think Mr. Tsvangirai made the right decision?

Ms. OMOSU: It's obviously not for an outsider to say, but yes. I mean it's very, very hard to see why he should have continued. I've seen the commentary from various sources saying, yes, but he's just effectively handed a victory to President Mugabe. I think that that's not the right way to look at this.

Long before he withdrew, the credibility of this exercise was completely exploded. Nobody could really take seriously that this was a free and fair contest, so the ball was, if you like, already in the court of the region of the continent to say, well, you know, is this the kind of transition of power that we want to see on the continent? And even if he had stayed in and fought boldly up to the last, I think that would have been a question. He has now just basically said to them, OK, you guys, you need to take control of the situation.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of which, who should take control of the situation? Mr. Mugabe has seemed oblivious to international criticism, especially from the West, from the U.S. and from Britain, whose diplomats have been quite outspoken in documenting the abuses that they see directed at opposition supporters, but does any of this criticism have teeth? Has there been any organized diplomatic effort to force Mr. Mugabe to respect the election process?

Ms. OMOSU: Well, he's certainly played the situation very effectively. He's used this strategy of saying that anyone who criticizes him must be a patsy of the West since that's something very, very few people on this continent want to be, they then shut up and accept that they have to wait until the next opportunity. It doesn't help, I think, that as in this case now, the minute that he does something new or some new outrage happens, you know, five or six Western leaders leap up and start shouting and get there long before an African leader does. It reinforces exactly the wrong kind of message.

That said, I think, from what I'm hearing from colleagues on the ground, there is a very new atmosphere in Africa at the moment around this question. People really feel that it has gone too far and something really does have to be done, and there are practical things, I think, that can be done. There is leverage.

MARTIN: Such as?

Ms. AMOSU: Well, I think probably it's true to say that the mediation effort led by the Southern African Development community, and specifically by President Mbeki of South Africa, has run its course. It has come in for enormous criticism, the so-called - you know, quiet diplomacy that has done little more than appear, at least, to appease President Mugabe. He has certainly flouted any apparent interest in the region, but he should, you know, come to the table and be serious.

But I think it could be quite different if you saw the African Union engage. There are a great many countries now for the first time, really, have come out and been extremely critical, and that includes longtime allies of Zimbabwe's like Angola, for example, countries that have never criticized before.

Fortuitously, there is an African Union summit starting on Monday. The pre-meetings are already going on in Egypt this week. I hear from my colleague there that the mood is that the African Union needs to step in.

And the kind of list of action points is stop the violence. The idea that's floating around is the idea of trying to deploy a protection force. That is a legitimate action by the African Union. If its Heads of States Assembly decides that crimes against humanity are being committed, it can order that, and I think the evidence is overwhelming if that's the case.

Then to restart the aid flows. The humanitarian crisis on the ground is absolutely appalling. It was bad before all this happened, but as the tide of violence has risen, things have got a great deal worse.

MARTIN: Mr. Mugabe has ordered some of the NGOs to stop distributing food, claiming that they are participating in politics. So can these groups - is there any way for them to restart their humanitarian efforts?

Ms. AMOSU: No.

MARTIN: Or, can they?

GUEST: Not unless there is some external authority that forces Mugabe to accept that. I think that's the point of people saying, look, another meeting isn't going to cut it. We need to see some serious protection force on the ground that can show that there is protection for those who want to deliver the humanitarian assistance. It is desperately needed, and I think if we could get some kind of stabilization on the humanitarian front, then we would be able to see a political process led by the African Union, supported by the UN, as we saw in Kenya.

MARTIN: Finally, is there any constructive role for the U.S. to play here, or is it your view that the West is so polarizing and so easily used as sort of foil for Mugabe that it really is not constructive for the U.S. to take the lead here?

Ms. AMOSU: Oh, no, I'm sure there's an enormous amount that the U.S. and the West can do. I think what's necessary is to have a little humility, be more willing to work alongside the African partners that are out there and willing now, I think, to do that. And if they can do that instead of, you know, going for, sort of, what are obviously quite gratifying but nonetheless - you know, solo initiatives and condemnation, then I think we'll see some very productive partnerships going forward.

MARTIN: Akwe Amosu is the senior policy analyst for Africa at the Open Society Policy Center. She joined us here in our Washington studio. Thank you so much for coming in.

Ms. AMOSU: My pleasure.

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