Image: President Robert Mugabe
AP
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, addresses supporters, at the Harare airport on Friday, on his return to Harare from Egypt, where he attended the African Union summit.
updated 7/5/2008 1:04:19 PM ET 2008-07-05T17:04:19

Nigeria. Rwanda. Uganda. Ethiopia. Gabon. Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe has plenty of competitors for the title of "least democratic in Africa."

But while he has been singled out for condemnation by the West, leaders of other autocratic states in Africa have largely been able to avoid sanctions and isolation. Many have friends in Western capitals. Or play a strategic role in the war against terrorist groups. Or sit on oil.

With corrupt and authoritarian governments close to the norm on the continent, it is not surprising that African leaders ignored Western demands that they censure Zimbabwe's president at a summit this week and some welcomed him with hugs.

As Mugabe himself has asked: How many African leaders can point a clean finger at him? How many held a better election than his one-man runoff that followed a campaign of violence against his foes that induced the opposition leader to quit the race?

While some African leaders have condemned Mugabe, many admire him for thumbing his nose at the West and pointing out its perceived hypocrisies, like the Bush administration appealing for human rights in Zimbabwe while facing criticism over the U.S. prison at Guantanamo.

"We Africans should learn a lesson from this," Gambian President Yahya Jammeh said in praising Mugabe's election to a sixth term.

"They (the West) think they can dictate to us and this is not acceptable. Africans should stand for Zimbabwe. After all, what did the West do for Africa?" said Jammeh, a former army colonel who seized power in a 1994 coup.

Just a decade ago, much of Africa was gripped by hope as a wave of democracy swept the continent.

It began with the extraordinary sight of protesters in the West African state of Benin taking hammers to a statue of Lenin. Within three years, 26 countries had held multiparty presidential elections on a continent known for one-man rule.

When elections in South Africa ended white minority rule in 1994, there was not one single-party state left in sub-Saharan Africa. Western nations tied aid to free elections and severed ties with dictators they had supported in the name of the Cold War fight against communism.

But the optimism, backed by theories that opening socialist economies to the free market would help pull Africa out of poverty, has evaporated and the democracy movement has stalled.

Today, only 21 states, including Botswana and South Africa, hold relatively free elections. Many of the remaining 31 are ruled by despots, including many offering the illusion of democracy with elections like those Mugabe held.

Who's to blame?
Rights activists put much of the blame the West.

"It seems Washington and European governments will accept even the most dubious election so long as the 'victor' is a strategic or commercial ally," Kenneth Roth, executive director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a recent report.

Among countries he singled out as sham democracies are oil-rich Chad and Nigeria; Uganda, whose President Yoweri Museveni's friendship with President Bush has shielded him from criticism; and Ethiopia, a major U.S. ally against Islamic militants.

Other oil producers that have managed to avoid international condemnation include Angola, which hasn't held a presidential election since 1992, and Gabon, where President Omar Bongo seized power in a 1967 coup and now reigns as Africa's longest-serving leader.

"Countries that have made a point of overtly aligning themselves with U.S. narratives and policies regarding terrorism appear to have benefited not only from financial and military support but seem successfully to have diverted attention away from their internal poor governance and human rights abuse," said Akwe Amosu, senior analyst at the Open Society Institute in Washington.

Tragic tale
Much of the West's focus on Zimbabwe is tied up in the sadness of seeing one of Africa's great success stories fall apart so completely.

When Mugabe led Zimbabwe to independence in 1980, the country already had developed industries and an agricultural base that made it nearly self-sufficient because of years of U.N. sanctions imposed against a white supremacist regime.

Mugabe abandoned his guerrilla movement's policies of "scientific socialism" that called for nationalizing industries and land and instead encouraged a fairly free economy that grew and allowed him to make major investments in education and health care.

Zimbabwe blossomed and became a showcase for the continent, held up as an example to then white-ruled South Africa of an economic and multiracial success created by a black man. But the world's high hopes were short-lived.

In 2000, Mugabe sent out his loyalists to begin violently seizing white farmers' land out of revenge for their refusal to support a referendum to consolidate his power. That led to the collapse of a thriving commercial farming sector that exported food to Zimbabwe's neighbors.

Downward spiral
The economic meltdown has left a third of Zimbabweans hungry and caused inflation to run at a mind-boggling 4 million percent. Out of a population of 12 million, some 5 million Zimbabweans are thought to have fled to other countries.

Yet while Mugabe has presided over this catastrophe, he still casts a spell over many Africans. Thousands of supporters thronged the airport at Zimbabwe's capital Friday to greet Mugabe when he returned from attending the African Union summit early in the week.

Zimbabwe is "the single greatest challenge ... in southern Africa, not only because of its terrible humanitarian consequences but also because of the dangerous political precedent it sets," said U.N. deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro, Tanzania's former foreign minister.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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