A fair Zimbabwe poll is not enough

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Wednesday, 18 June, 2008

Kofi Annan discusses the crisis in Zimbabwe and argues that we have a responsibility to support its people by helping to ensure a move from division to reconciliation as well as free and fair elections. This article first appeared in The Financial Times.


Zimbabwe is in freefall. This is a crisis that affects us all, and not just its people, whose fate is on our conscience. For those of us who believe governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens, it is a moment that imposes a special challenge and one we must not ignore.

Zimbabwe's economic meltdown is having tragic consequences both inside the country and in the southern Africa sub-region. The recent suspension by the government of the work of aid agencies will only make the already desperate plight of millions within Zimbabwe even worse. This is a picture of need that we Africans had hoped to put behind us.

But it is not just an internal crisis. It spreads far beyond Zimbabwe's borders. Thousands of people have fled Zimbabwe to escape attacks or imprisonment. Many more have been forced to seek work in neighbouring countries to try to feed their families. The collapse of the Zimbabwean economy is having a serious impact on the whole region.

What is also worrying is that the crisis plays into the hands of those outside Africa who claim that the continent's problems are beyond solution and that additional development aid and assistance will simply be wasted or stolen. The report of the African Progress Panel, published yesterday, showed how false a claim this is. It detailed how, away from the headlines, democratic government and respect for the rule of law and human rights are spreading across Africa.

It is grossly unfair to make any single country a litmus test for a whole continent. But there is no doubt that what we are seeing in Zimbabwe is tarnishing the reputation of Africa as a whole in the eyes of both friends and critics.

Zimbabwe is, of course, a nation with a proud history. Its struggle for independence was a story that inspired pride across the continent. Its new leaders, and Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's president, in particular, gave all of us confidence in African achievement. And, in turn, Mr Mugabe unstintingly gave sanctuary and support to the aspirations of others, not least the brave freedom fighters of South Africa.

Our pride in this history is now tested. But instead of simple condemnation, we owe its people something in return for their historic example. The debt we owe is to make our best efforts to help Zimbabweans find their own stability, their own solution.

Zimbabwe faces a second ballot in its election of a president. Neither candidate gained the required majority on the first round. The constitution requires a run-off, and this is now scheduled for June 27. It comes as no surprise, in the cauldron of this contest where there is so much at stake, to hear claims and counter-claims of voter intimidation, of targeted killings of party officials and of the political use of food aid. It is a bleak bulletin and has raised questions of whether there is any hope for a fair vote and outcome. But Zimbabweans have a proud tradition of democracy. They are not easily cowed. Already, there are credible reports that violence and intimidation against certain sections of society, intended to prevent them from exercising their democratic rights, are having the opposite effect. Zimbabweans are determined to have their voices heard and their votes counted.

But if this is true, we must do everything in our power to help make polling day free and fair. We must insist on the deployment of the greatest number of election monitors, on their freedom of movement, on zero tolerance for violence and intimidation.

The repeated arrest of Morgan Tsvangirai, president of the Movement for Democratic Change, and other senior MDC colleagues is preventing the opposition from campaigning and is a serious barrier to free and fair elections. The government must prevent such infringements of liberty. The role of government is to protect everyone.

If the government, which many claim to be the author of violence, cannot ensure a fair vote, Africa must hold it accountable. The victor of an unfair vote must be under no illusions: he will neither have the legitimacy to govern, nor receive the support of the inter-national community.

Zimbabwe's pain, however, cannot be relieved simply by a fair vote, essential as that is. The country's future will depend upon the collective will of all its citizens, and not just those who claim an election success. It is for this reason that the interests of Zimbabweans also now require efforts to move beyond division to reconciliation.

Even as the nation prepares for election, its leaders must, without delay, negotiate a compact that will survive the election, whoever is the winner. This compact must provide for agreement on a smooth transition and effective governance arrangements supported by all Zimbabweans. It should respect the eventual vote, but just as importantly anticipate the need for leaders from both sides to come together to build Zimbabwe's future.

This process - of cross-party negotiations on the elements of reconciliation - requires our support just as much as our insistence on the creation of the conditions for a fair election. The responsibility to protect Zimbabwe's people thus demands action on two fronts. Both are urgent and neither is easy nor assured: an election free of intimidation; and a compact of reconciliation from its leaders which guarantees Zimbabwe's future.

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