Jewish World Review Jan. 22, 2001 / 9 Shevat 5762

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Andrew Young's newest 'friend' -- IT'S hard to find anyone who occupies a place in the American conscience quite like Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, although Uganda's former strongman Idi Amin comes close. As he turned in the past couple of years from small-D democrat into a near-dictator, Mugabe has few friends left except Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, Cuba's Fidel Castro, North Korea's communist leaders and a few other tyrants.

And, I was surprised to learn, Andrew Young.

Yes, Young, the former United Nations ambassador, former mayor of Atlanta and former lieutenant for Martin Luther King Jr. back in the glory days of the civil rights movement, remains a defender of Mugabe.

Young says he has been a friend of Mugabe since the 1970s when Young helped broker the peace agreement under President Jimmy Carter that led to Rhodesia's transition in 1980 from former British colony to independent Zimbabwe under Mugabe's popularly elected leadership.

Young even lobbied last year (without being paid by anyone, he claims) against the "Zimbabwe Peace and Economic Recovery Act," which passed anyway with the support of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The bill threatens sanctions if Mugabe does not accept its package of incentives to hold fair elections, drop press restrictions and stop such atrocities as the rampant and violent seizing of white farmers' land by veterans of Zimbabwe's independence war.

Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., an African American with a keen interest in Africa, helped shape the bill into a balanced package of carrots and sticks. Still, Young opposed its threat of sanctions. When I reached Young by phone in Atlanta, where he heads GoodWorks International, an international business consultancy firm, he sounded like he wants to push not only carrots but carrot CAKE!

Young conceded that Mugabe is "a bad democrat," small "d," that Mugabe's approach to land reform has been inconsistent and volatile and his methods often violent and unlawful. But, after successive British and American governments failed to deliver the funding promised to help implement land reform, the war veterans have gotten impatient and "backed Mugabe into a corner."

"I have been a friend of Mugabe who helped convince him in 1980 to leave the land reform issue alone for the time being," Young said. "We promised to take it up in 10 years, but when 1990 came, we didn't live up to the promise."

"Mugabe is more a solution than the problem," Young said. "If you get rid of him, you still have the problem that one percent of the population still controls more than 70 percent of the land."

Maybe, but Mugabe did not consistently push the land reform issue either, until it became politically convenient. His sudden interest happened to coincide with the rise in the past two or three years of his first serious opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, which has risen out of the country's highly literate and growing middle class to dominate urban areas. Young MDC supporters I talked to during my most recent visit to Zimbabwe last summer did not sound very impressed by the land issue. They don't care about farming. They want jobs, exports and laptops.

The very real possibility that he might not be re-elected in March after 21 years in office has put Mugabe to democracy's greatest test, which is not whether a leader can be peacefully elected, but whether he or she will step down when the voters want someone else. George Washington passed that test. So did South Africa's Nelson Mandela. But, Mugabe, at 77, appears determined to stay awhile, like it or not.

In a somewhat panicked mode, his party henchmen and the military have moved boldly to terrorize opposition supporters and the media. If democracy is to survive in Zimbabwe, it needs outside help. Its government needs to allow outside monitors and real transparency to its conduct and counting of the votes in the presidential election. Otherwise, the winner, whomever it may be, will not have the credibility to help the country rebuild after years of sanctions and isolation.

What Zimbabwe does not need, it seems to me, is a double standard that says Mugabe should not be held to the same basic standards of human rights and accountability we should expect of all national leaders in this era.

Unfortunately, Mugabe doesn't seem to care what the world's media or leaders care about him. As the vote approaches, he appears to be isolating himself even further.

He has not even returned the urgent calls of his "old friend" Andrew Young in recent weeks, Young laments.

That's OK, Mr. Ambassador. Maybe Mugabe is doing you a favor by distancing himself. You don't want to be misjudged by the company you keep.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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