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Zimbabwe's Mandela?

Dictator Robert Mugabe may weaken his regime by cracking down on Morgan Tsvangirai.

March 14, 2007

MORGAN TSVANGIRAI is not a household name in the United States, but he stands a chance of becoming for Zimbabwe what Nelson Mandela was for South Africa -- especially if his country's ruling regime persists in its self-destructive attempts to crush him.

Tsvangirai, 55, was badly beaten by police Sunday during a "prayer meeting" in a suburb of Harare, the nation's capital. Tsvangirai probably wasn't doing a lot of praying; political rallies are illegal in Zimbabwe, so opposition leaders gathered at a legally permissible religious event. Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe exercises total control over the media and has made criticizing the government a crime.

Until recently, Tsvangirai had been fading from the political scene. A labor leader who quit school as a teenager to provide for his family, Tsvangirai in 1999 created the country's opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. Yet the party's shaky coalition split apart in 2005, and Tsvangirai spent 2006 largely on the sidelines. That changed in December, when the ruling party prompted widespread outrage by saying it would seek to extend the 83-year-old Mugabe's term, which expires in 2008. The arrests Sunday of Tsvangirai and the leader of the MDC's breakaway faction, Arthur Mutambara -- who also appeared at the rally -- signaled that the opposition is reunifying.

Mugabe, Zimbabwe's only leader since its independence from Britain in 1980, was widely regarded as a post-colonial African hero until 2000. That was when he launched "land reform" -- stealing farms from white settlers and redistributing the land to his supporters, most of whom knew nothing about farming. The result was the predictable collapse of an economy dominated by agriculture. Mugabe responded to the inevitable outcry with a brutal crackdown, culminating in 2005 with a campaign to bulldoze the homes and businesses of the urban poor, the MDC's political base. Hundreds of thousands were rendered homeless. The World Bank says Zimbabwe is suffering the world's worst peacetime economic crisis, with inflation running at more than 1,700%.

On Tuesday, Tsvangirai was taken to a hospital under police escort, with witnesses saying he had suffered deep head wounds and may have been tortured. His lawyer said the government planned to charge him with incitement to violence, which would be a tactical as well as a moral mistake. Mugabe's excesses have prompted international outcry but little action aside from sanctions from the United States and the European Union. If change is to come, it will likely have to come from within. And nothing rallies an opposition movement like turning its leader into a martyr.

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