Some African Leaders Call For Free Elections in Zimbabwe, But Not In Their Countries

While many African leaders are calling for President Robert Mugabe to postpone Zimbabwe's presidential run-off election tomorrow, some who are pointing the finger face similar allegations of electoral fraud and intimidation in their own countries.

Leaders of the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), whose Security Troika, consisting of the presidents from Angola, Swaziland and Tanzania, met for an emergency session on Zimbabwe this week in Swaziland. But many of the elected leaders who make up the AU and SADC did not earn their powerful roles in free or fair elections themselves.

One of them is President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola. Angola is considered "not free at all," meaning it has little-to-no multi-party political system, press freedom or civil rights, according to Freedom House, a US-based group that tracks democracy worldwide. President Dos Santos has been the president of Angola for nearly 30 years. Political prisoners, rigged elections and corruption are endemic problems in Angola, say human rights groups. Just last year, Sarah Wykes, a British National working for the anti-corruption group Global Witness, was arrested in Angola and detained for over a month for investigating corruption in the country's oil sector.

Swaziland itself, where the meeting on the crisis in Zimbabwe is taking place, doesn't have any presidential elections at all. It is a monarchy where the Presidency belongs to the king, passed down hereditarily, and who also appoints the Prime Minister and runs the army.

In the AU as well, several powerhouse countries have leaders who critics say benefited from rigged elections. Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt and Uganda are all countries where electoral fraud including intimidation of opposition support, ballot stuffing, or unilaterally changing the country's constitution to extend or end term limits, have all allegedly been used to keep a leader in power.

Daniel Calingaert, deputy director of programs at Freedom House calls the appeals for intervention by SADC and the AU ironic.

"I'd imagine countries like Angola and Nigeria and Uganda might be self conscious about criticizing Zimbabwe because that might invite closer scrutiny to their elections from the outside," he says.

Other experts in the region said that unless the other African leaders go after Mugabe in a united front, it is unlikely that they will individually be too harsh in their criticism.

"A number of them are probably concerned about their own situation and they may not want to be public about going against Mugabe unless there is a consensus." says Georgette Gagnon, the director of the Africa Program for New York-based Human Rights Watch. "There may be some divisions within the organizations about how hard and public the criticism should be," she says.

It is rare for African leaders to criticize one another at all. Partly because of the legacy of colonial rule, but also because criticizing other leaders leaves their own leadership vulnerable to scrutiny. However, the situation in Zimbabwe has become so dire that many leaders, even those with their own history of electoral fraud allegations, are starting to see President Mugabe as a blight on Africa's reputation.

"Mugabe is almost a throwback to a 1970's archetypal African dictator," says Calingaert. "Leaders of other African countries want the rest of the world to know that they are forward looking. Zimbabwe is a humanitarian crisis. On that basis, countries that might not have a perfect electoral record should feel very justified in intervening," he says.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the race this week, citing the Mugabe regime's "campaign of violence" against his supporters. At least 86 people have been killed and more than 200,000 displaced since the initial presidential election in March, which Tsvangirai won narrowly.

Both the diplomatic community and human rights groups want the SADC and the AU to put pressure on Mugabe to allow a fair vote to take place.

And there are African countries who Gagnon says are "stepping up to the plate" and pushing for a transitional governing body to lead Zimbabwe until the political situation can be stabilized enough to conduct free and fair elections. Tanzanian President, and AU chairman Jakaya Kikwete has been vocal in his criticism of President Mugabe, and so has Jacob Zuma, the head of South Africa's powerful ANC party.

But criticism alone is not enough. "They need to say that they're not going to recognize Friday's presidential election results," says Gagnon. "We haven't heard that yet."