RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now we head to southern Africa, where the crisis in Zimbabwe is getting worse. There's ongoing political turmoil. Inflation is astronomical. And the government declared a national emergency after a cholera outbreak that's killed hundreds and sickened thousands. Former President Jimmy Carter attempted to travel there last month. He was with former U.N. chief Kofi Annan and Graca Machel, the wife of South Africa's Nelson Mandela. They're part of a peace-making group known as the Elders.

Former President JIMMY CARTER: What the Elders try to do is to give maximum publicity that this crisis exists inside Zimbabwe.

MONTAGNE: The Elders did get publicity when Zimbabwe officials barred them from the country. So Carter and the others brought some Zimbabweans out of their homeland and to Johannesburg, South Africa, for meetings. There, Carter and his colleagues heard from teachers, doctors, nurses and farmers, and they gave a harsh description of President Robert Mugabe's rule.

Former President JIMMY CARTER: Mugabe had made every effort, successfully apparently, to conceal the fact that there's an absolute, total humanitarian crisis in his country. But what the reports were from inside Zimbabwe were horrifying and even much worse that we had feared.

In the first place, there is a ravaging campaign of oppression by the government to restrain any sort of dissenting voices. Secondly, there's a horrible epidemic, not only of AIDS, with about 3,500 people dying every week, but also an emerging and very rapidly increasing problem of cholera. So all of these things show what a terrible disaster is occurring inside the country.

MONTAGNE: But how can, at this stage of the game, Zimbabweans' humanitarian needs be met, as you all see it?

Former President JIMMY CARTER: The Mugabe government is so corrupt that any money sent into Zimbabwe for humanitarian purposes, a lot of it is stolen by his chosen people. So you basically have to send in material goods. And we did meet with all the leaders of South Africa, plus a leader of Botswana and others, and we learned from them that there is now a process to establish a constitutional amendment that would set up the office of prime minister.

And I think if he doesn't accept this policy that's supported by the other southern African countries of sharing power in his country and alleviating this total curtain around his suffering people, that he ought to be removed from office. But the first step would be to see if he will, indeed, finally share power.

MONTAGNE: The question of Robert Mugabe sharing power has been ongoing for such a long time now. He seems not to give up anything. The U.S. and Britain want him out. The prime minister of Kenya says the African Union, if not the U.N., should send in troops. I mean, there's all sorts of potential interventions. But realistically, what can be done?

Former President JIMMY CARTER: Well, I think there's a problem that's inherent here in the political interrelationships in Africa. And that is that many of these leaders of southern African nations, they're very reluctant to condemn Mugabe because he has been a hero in southern Africa because he was instrumental in overthrowing a racist regime. And then, he's also helped other nations nearby, so they kind of feel obligated to him, and they have protected him.

And the key country that could bring him down is South Africa. So we hope that with this massive wave of publicity now, that there will be additional pressure on these African leaders to demand that Mugabe either comply with the agreement or be removed from office. But to have an outside force come in and try to remove Mugabe with military means would mean a massive slaughter of people. And that ought to be the last resort. But maximum pressure by his own peers is what is necessary to bring him down.

MONTAGNE: But just to be clear. Would military action be on your list of possible options, even if it's at the very bottom of the list, a last resort?

Former President JIMMY CARTER: I think that that would be the last resort, yes. But I think that would mean an invasion of Zimbabwe, and many tens of thousands of people would be killed. So that's why I put it at the bottom of the list. But I think that diplomatic means and very severe economic sanctions against Mugabe and his leadership would be the first step.

MONTAGNE: President Carter, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Former President JIMMY CARTER: It's always a pleasure. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Former President Jimmy Carter speaking from Paris. He's part of an international group of peacemakers known as the Elders.

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