When the heads of state of the Southern African Development Community convened last week in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to discuss the political situation in Zimbabwe, hopes among the Zimbabwean people ran high. President Robert Mugabe had recently extended his brutal efforts to crush dissent from his political opponents to include ordinary Zimbabweans. His ruling party left a trail of fractured bodies and two dead in its most recent crackdown.
With the economy in shreds and the tense political situation posing a security threat not only to Zimbabwe but potentially to its neighbors, too, there was an expectation that African leaders would finally act.
At the summit, however, the African leaders showed their indifference to the suffering that we ordinary people of Zimbabwe continue to endure. At the closing news conference, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete announced that he and his fellow heads of state were "in support of the government and people of Zimbabwe."
"We got full backing; not even one [SADC leader] criticized our actions," Mugabe boasted after the summit.
Zimbabweans were left to wonder how neighboring governments can continue claiming to support the brutalizer and the brutalized at the same time.
As Mugabe's government continues its assault on the media, its political opponents, civil activists and human rights defenders, the danger to the population is growing. Nearly two years after the government's program of mass evictions and demolitions -- Operation Murambatsvina, or "Clear the Filth" -- hundreds of thousands continue to suffer catastrophic consequences.
In hindsight, we can see that this scheme was just the beginning. Mugabe sought to destabilize the population by arbitrarily destroying people's homes and property without notice, process or compensation; and by displacing thousands into rural areas, where they lack basic services such as health care, schools and clean water. Today, HIV-AIDS is rampant in my country, and there are acute food shortages. Young Zimbabweans have no meaningful educational opportunities, and Mugabe has wrecked the country's economy through macroeconomic chaos, endemic corruption and political patronage. Millions of black Zimbabweans who love their country have been forced to migrate out of this insecurity and hopelessness to live as second-class citizens in foreign lands.
Last month, Human Rights Watch documented how police forces in Harare, Bulawayo and Mutare have beaten Zimbabweans in the streets, in shopping malls and in bars. The terror has prompted many families in those areas to obey a self-imposed curfew after dark.
Mugabe is stronger than ever, though removed from the fact that Zimbabweans want to be liberated from oppression. Of course, a weakened and terrified population cannot fight back.
With Mugabe poised to rig five more catastrophic years in office, it is time for regional leaders to recognize that his campaigns of oppression make apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa look like amateurs. As Bishop Desmond Tutu has said, we as Africans must hang our heads in shame at our failure to make a difference to the suffering men, women and children of Zimbabwe.
When will Southern Africa's leaders decide they will no longer align themselves with tyranny? When will they abandon their failed strategy of "quiet diplomacy" and move to help the people of Zimbabwe?
African leaders and the international community must demand that the government of Zimbabwe stop its violence against political opponents; create a democratic environment through the repeal of repressive legislation; enact a democratic constitution; and hold free, fair elections that are supervised by the international community.
If Southern Africa's leaders finally break their silence about the catastrophe in their neighborhood, this could be the year Mugabe leaves office and Zimbabwe reintegrates itself into the world. Or they could remain silent and complicit, and this year could mark the beginning of an even steeper decline into oppression.
The writer is executive director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and secretary of the Law Society of Zimbabwe.