JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Renewed criticism against Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe amid a cholera outbreak shows growing international outrage at the suffering there, but action to oust his regime will be harder to come by.
U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have called in the last week for Zimbabwe’s 84-year-old leader to go.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter told National Public Radio (NPR) that humanitarian conditions are “horrifying” in the southern African country, and that “the Mugabe government is so corrupt” that only material goods — not cash — should be sent to help the country’s people, according to an interview posted Tuesday on NPR’s Web site.
Some African leaders have again voiced frustration with Mugabe, transcending their usual practice of saying nothing against the man who is considered a hero among African freedom fighters and has ruled his country since its 1980 declaration of independence from Britain.
But the West says the burden of action rests with Zimbabwe’s neighbors, and main regional power South Africa said Tuesday it would not send troops. South Africa also maintained that the answer for Zimbabwe was power-sharing, not ousting Mugabe.
“There should be no political point-scoring and games played when what is really needed right now is support,” South African Foreign Ministry official Ayanda Ntsaluba told reporters. He said Zimbabwean leaders needed to work across the political divide to solve the country’s problems.
Zimbabwe, once the region’s breadbaskets, as seen its agricultural sector collapse under Mugabe. There are chronic shortages of food, fuel and cash. The health system has collapsed and a cholera outbreak has killed 589 people and spread to Botswana, South Africa and Mozambique.
Botswana has called for Zimbabwe’s neighbors to isolate Mugabe by closing their borders while Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu said military force should be used if the leader refuses to relinquish power.
“We urge others from the region to step up and join the growing chorus of voices calling for an end to Mugabe’s tyranny,” Bush said in a brief, strongly worded statement.
The European Union added 11 names Monday to its list of more than 170 Zimbabwean officials banned from traveling to the bloc and froze their assets. The EU also has blacklisted four companies linked to Mugabe’s regime. The bloc — one of Zimbabwe’s major donors — has frozen aid projects and imposed an arms embargo.
But Mugabe’s aides have responded to the calls for his ousting by accusing the West of trying to use the cholera crisis as an excuse to topple the government.
At a news conference Tuesday, Zimbabwe Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu claimed “the cholera issue has been used to drive a wedge among us,” that the deaths were due to Western sanctions and the disease was “under control.”
He dismissed leaders, including Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Britain’s Brown, who have called for Mugabe to step down, saying: “I don’t want to hear their dirty mouths.”
Zimbabwe also refused to allow a visit last month by former statesmen and humanitarian advocates from a group called “The Elders” — including Carter and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan — who had wanted to survey the situation on the ground.
Carter told NPR on Tuesday that “Mugabe had made every effort, successfully, to conceal the fact that there’s an absolute, total humanitarian crisis in his country.”
He said Africa’s other leaders should push Mugabe to step down.
“Maximum pressure by his own peers is what is necessary to bring him down,” Carter said. “I think that if South Africa and the other 13 nations would demand that Mugabe step down, he would have to do it.”
Elinor Sisulu, a Zimbabwean activist based in South Africa, believes there is little substance behind the calls for Mugabe to be removed other than “anger, impatience and desperation” at the situation. She disagrees with calls for military action, saying it would only fuel tensions.
Such intervention would be unlikely, though, as U.N. and African peacekeeping resources are over-stretched.
Kenya’s Odinga called for troops to move into Zimbabwe to end the humanitarian crisis or for the African Union to allow the U.N. to send soldiers. But AU spokesman El-Ghassim Wane said Tuesday “the commission would not like to be seen as concurring or taking sides with member states.”
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner expressed exasperation when speaking Monday to reporters at the end of EU foreign affairs ministerial meeting in Brussels.
“How can we find a solution? Sanctions? Sanctions — yes — against whom, against him? Not against the Zimbabwe people,” he said.
The only viable solution for Zimbabwe may be for the parties to make a reality out of a unity government deal stalled since September over the allocation of Cabinet posts.
Independent analyst Brian Raftopoulos said Mugabe and his party were insisting on keeping the security and defense ministries, “because clearly it is around their capacity to arrest, harass and kill that they place their major emphasis, not on the capacity to protect and provide services.”
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