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By Alex T. Magaisa

AFRICA. Finally, Africa has turned. Or so it seems.

Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga has called it ‘an African eyesore’. In the same week, 40 of Africa’s prominent sons and daughters issued a collective epistle on Zimbabwe.

You may not have expected it from Kenneth Kaunda, erstwhile President of Zambia and close ally of Robert Mugabe from the liberation era.

Not from Joachim Chissano, another great friend of the President. So close is the man, he was Best Man at Mugabe’s wedding just over a decade ago.

Not from General Ibrahim Babangida, erstwhile strongman of Nigeria, himself part of the Military Junta that thwarted Nigeria’s abortive bid for democracy in the mid-nineties.

But they have come in all shapes, sizes and colours to add pressure against a regime that is now, surely, like the dear friend who runs amok in public without covering his modesty. You are embarrassed, less for him than for yourself as someone whom the public associates with the shameless fellow. Eventually, there comes a point when you have to rein him back; to chastise him publicly for everyone’s good.

But in all this, there is a clear sign.

It is that Mugabe’s current account of loyalty and patience in the bank of the African leadership community is running very low. For a long time, Mugabe has maintained a deep loyalty account with this community of allies and sympathisers. He is their brother; a man to whom they have deferred, even if they may have whispered in the ear and murmured in the secrecy of the boardrooms.

It has been an enigma. How surely, ordinary people have asked, could the African leadership stand by and do nothing when their beloved brother has run amok?

But then, a few loyalty bankers remain; the likes of South Africa’s President Mbeki, who have long provided an overdraft facility on this loyalty account. But Mugabe has continued to draw from it. It can only be a matter of time before they, too, put a cap on that overdraft facility. For, it has reached a stage where the recipient is now in a vicious loyalty ‘debt cycle’: the more he draws from the facility, the further he descends into debt and the more he seeks to draw from the facility. It is unsustainable.

They have extended the facility in the hope that somehow the recipient would make amends; that he would put in place measures for rehabilitation. But any hopes that the debt would be repaid continue to recede with each passing day, with every new episode of calculated violence, with every statement and threat to the peace and security of an extraordinarily patient nation

But when the recipient of the facility can no longer reciprocate, the lenders will have to re-assess and protect their own interest. And sure enough, Zimbabwe is beginning to hurt a lot more beyond its borders. Not the ordinary citizens of those countries – they have already borne the brunt of Zimbabwe’s catastrophe. It is the leadership, whose embarrassment at defending the indefensible can, surely, be concealed no longer. That which has horns will eventually manifest. And it has.

They, too, know that history will judge them very harshly; but before that, their own citizens will issue judgment. They did so at Polokwane and Mr Mbeki’s leverage has diminished since then. Even the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai plucked up enough courage and audacity to publicly question Mbeki’s sincerity and neutrality, something that he might have done behind closed doors, were it not for Mbeki’s own growing impotence.

Mbeki facility to his elder comrade began to hurt him long back and it will surely haunt him for years to come. Harsher members of the jury have already issued their verdict - that he has been an accessory to the fact. Not because he has not tried. He has but the greatest weakness is that his public appearance has been that of a cushion to the indefensible. But there is a chance yet; an opportunity to say, “I tried my best under the circumstances but I cannot stand for and by this, anymore”.

Perhaps then, even the harshest critics of his ‘Quiet Diplomacy’ may be prepared for a little kindness. Those persuaded by the good Book often talk of St Paul, the man who turned dramatically on the road to Damascus, casting aside loyalty to the tradition and accepting the Faith. They talk of a man who converted and became one of the principal voices of the Faith; a man whose letters form the bulk of the latter half of the good Book. Some among the African leaders have already turned. They, too, have issued a letter.

But there is one man and one letter that could make by far a greater difference. It is the word that could come from the man who has so far stood side by side with his great friend. The world awaits President Mbeki’s St Paul moment.

For, surely, it is now clear that the veil of democracy has become a lot thinner. It is no longer necessary to lift the veil to see what lies behind it. The veil itself is now so thin it cannot conceal much.

Mugabe is reported to have recently said the pen cannot erase what the gun achieved. Those with memories stretching further than the current crisis will recall that it is not the first time. He is reported to have said in 1976, ‘Our votes must go together with our guns. After all, any vote we shall have, shall have been the product of the gun (sic). The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer – its guarantor. The people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins’? That is and has always been Mugabe’s view of electoral democracy.

President Mbeki and his SADC colleagues could draw a lesson from history. Those who recall the 1979 Lancaster House Constitutional Conference that paved the path to Zimbabwe’s independence say that, at one stage, Mugabe threatened to withdraw from the talks and return to the bush. It took the intervention of three African statesmen who had stood by and provided active support to Mugabe and the liberation movement. Of the three men, Samora Machel, Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda, only the latter has lived long enough to witness another ‘return to war’ tantrum.

President Mbeki is in a very similar position to those three sons of Africa. He may wish to confer with Kaunda to know what it is they did and said at the time for Mugabe to re-commit to the talks and facilitate an end to the war.

For President Mbeki, a St Paul moment, surely, now beckons.

Alex Magaisa is based at Kent Law School, UK and can be contacted at

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