IN RETROSPECT , it was an exercise in naiveté to have imagined that Zimbabwe's brutal strongman, Robert Mugabe, would relinquish power just because he had lost an election. It has been more than three weeks since the March 29 vote in which Mugabe's party, known as ZANU-PF, lost control of the lower house of parliament. Yet official results in the presidential contest between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai have yet to be released.
There isn't much doubt who won. Public tallies posted at each polling station showed Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change, garnering more than 50 percent of the vote. Were the electoral commission to certify those tallies, it would mean Mugabe's 28 years at the top had come to an end. But the electoral commission, like everything else in Zimbabwe's government, is controlled by ZANU-PF. So there will be no official results until the books have been cooked to Mugabe's satisfaction.
Meanwhile, the regime's thugs have been busy, staging raids against foreign journalists and opposition-party offices, invading farms owned by white Zimbabweans, terrorizing voters in the countryside. US Ambassador James McGee warned last week that Mugabe's goon squads were carrying out "threats, beatings, abductions, burning of homes, and even murder" in areas where the opposition party ran strong. A group of Zimbabwean doctors say they have treated more than 150 people who had been beaten since the election. Hundreds more have been detained, and the MDC says at least two of its workers have been murdered.
Not for the first time, Mugabe is viciously stealing an election, and not for the first time, the international community is doing nothing to stop him. Particularly feckless has been South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki. More than any other regional leader, he could exert the leverage to force Mugabe to abide by the voters' decision. He has refused to do so. A week after the election, Mbeki insisted there was "a hopeful picture" in Zimbabwe; several days later he held a friendly session with Mugabe, then declared to the world that "there is no crisis in Zimbabwe" - merely a "natural process taking place."
Is it any wonder that Africa is so often thought of as the planet's most miserable continent?
"By failing to come together to denounce Mugabe unequivocally," The Economist concluded, Mbeki and other African leaders "have not only prolonged Zimbabwe's agony; they have damaged the whole of southern Africa, both materially and in terms of Africa's reputation."
Rarely has one man's misrule so horribly wrecked a country. The MDC's David Coltart, a member of Zimbabwe's parliament, surveyed some of the data recently in a study for the Cato Institute in Washington:
In a country once known as Africa's breadbasket, agriculture has been all but destroyed. Manufacturing has collapsed. So has mining - gold production has fallen to its lowest level since 1907, even as world gold prices soar to record highs.
Thanks to ZANU-PF thuggery, 90 percent of foreign tourism to Zimbabwe has evaporated. Insane economic policies have fueled an inflation rate of well over 100,000 percent. Zimbabweans by the millions have fled the country, and 80 percent of those who remain live below the poverty line. Death from disease and malnutrition has exploded. Life expectancy for men in Zimbabwe has fallen to 37 years - 34 years for women.
Mugabe and his loyalists stop at nothing to ensure their grip on power, Coltart writes. As of 2004, an astonishing "90 percent of the MDC members of parliament elected in June 2000 had suffered some human rights violation; 24 percent survived murder attempts, and 42 percent had been tortured."
The government, meanwhile, is now accusing Tsvangirai of treason. State-run media claims he was plotting with Great Britain to overthrow the regime. But the real menace is Mugabe, who was preparing at week's end to receive a 77-ton shipment of Chinese arms, including AK-47 rifles, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and more than 3 million rounds of ammunition. What is he planning to do with so much additional firepower? That, Zimbabwe's deputy information minister said, is "none of anybody's business."
On Thursday, a South African government spokesman belatedly acknowledged that the situation in Zimbabwe "is dire." Now maybe he'll say how much more dire it must get before South Africa - or any other country - finally does something about it.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com.