Monday, December 8, 2008



DECEMBER 7, 2008

Tens of thousands will starve or die of cholera unless the outside world ends the madness of Robert Mugabe.

ZIMBABWE'S TRAGIC implosion is gaining momentum. On Thursday the government announced a national health emergency because of a rapidly spreading cholera epidemic, which so far has killed at least 500 people and infected more than 12,000. The water and sewage system of Harare, the capital, has broken down; hospitals have virtually ceased to function. The United Nations and aid groups say that hundreds of thousands of people are at immediate risk. That comes on top of the 5 million -- more than half of Zimbabwe's remaining population -- who will need international food aid by next month to avoid starvation, according to the United Nations. Zimbabwe's economy has seized up: only one in 10 people now works, most schools are closed and prices double every 24 hours. In short, a country that once was a relatively prosperous food exporter will soon be the site of a major humanitarian catastrophe unless there is international intervention.

"If this is not evidence to the international community that it's time to stand up for what's right," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday, "I don't know what will be."

"What's right" is pretty obvious -- the removal from power of 84-year-old autocrat Robert Mugabe, the author of this calamity and a leader who rivals Uganda's Idi Amin and Congo's Mobutu Sese Seko as a paragon of misrule in Africa. Ms. Rice spoke plainly -- "It's well past time for Robert Mugabe to leave" -- and to their credit, some other African leaders finally are stepping up. Kenya's prime minister, Botswana's foreign minister and retired archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa have all called on African governments to force Mr. Mugabe from power.

The stumbling block, as always, remains the South African government and its former president, Thabo Mbeki, who is supposed to be the "mediator" between Mr. Mugabe and his opposition but instead has become the strongman's most die-hard defender. Mr. Mbeki's successor as president, Kgalema Motlanthe, is a little better; he has made it clear that he does not consider Mr. Mugabe's government legitimate. But South Africa continues to insist on the unworkable formula cooked up by Mr. Mbeki months ago -- a unity government that would leave Mr. Mugabe in power while giving opponent Morgan Tsvangirai the impossible job of rescuing the economy.

Mr. Motlanthe's government did, at least, resolve to send a delegation of government officials to Zimbabwe tomorrow to evaluate the cholera and food crisis and determine what aid is needed. That team ought to provide a vehicle for South Africa to send a message to Mr. Mugabe that should have been dispatched long ago: The first step toward the rescue of his country is his own retirement. It took military intervention by neighbors to end the insanity of Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko; Zimbabwe begs for the same remedy.