On Wednesday, Zimbabweans will head to the polls to elect a new president. In May, current President Robert Mugabe, a dictator infamous for his human rights abuses, signed a new constitution that will usher in much-needed reforms, including a more expansive bill of rights, presidential term limits, and electoral amendments meant to keep elections free and fair.
Unfortunately, by announcing that elections would occur on July 31st, Mugabe called the integrity of the vote into question, as key reforms would not go into effect until after that date.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and the Southern African Development Community have made appeals to delay the elections; Tsvangirai’s primary stated concern is that the early election date will not give formerly disenfranchised citizens sufficient time to register to vote. And though the new constitution sets a maximum of two five-year terms for the president, this does not apply retroactively; if Mugabe wins this election, he could potentially continue his 33-year reign for another decade.
Lack of timely reform and constitutional intricacies are not Mugabe’s only advantages. He has been extremely strategic, particularly in his manipulation of LGBTQ issues and anti-Western sentiment. Mugabe made a name for himself as a leader committed to fighting Western imperialism after he came to power in 1980 and ended white-minority rule. Like many other African leaders, he has framed homosexuality as an export from the West. Drawing upon more latent homophobic currents and strong anti-Western sentiment, Mugabe has been able to rally voters who see him as leader fighting for African autonomy, and Mugabe recently promised that gays and lesbians would “rot in jail” if he won the election.
Mugabe’s virulently homophobic statements have resulted in a strong reaction from the international community. Western leaders such as David Cameron and Barack Obama have condemned Mugabe for his anti-LGBTQ stance, resulting in considerable backlash from Zimbabweans. Though well-intentioned, their criticism provides fuel for Mugabe’s argument that the West is trying to impose their values on Africa.
On the other hand, the U.S. conservative group the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has indeed interfered with Zimbabwean politics, as described in Political Research Associates’ 2012 Colonizing African Values. In a blatant attempt to advance its own agenda, the ACLJ opened an office in Zimbabwe and lobbied the constitutional commission to include a prohibition on homosexuality. Though homosexuality was not criminalized in the new constitution, by excluding a human rights provision for LGBTQ individuals, homosexuality remains a criminal offense under penal law. What’s more, same-sex marriage was explicitly banned in the new constitution, marking the ACLJ’s success at shaping Zimbabwe’s constitution—when homosexuality is already criminalized, the introduction of same-sex marriage bans reveals an American concern.
U.S. conservatives’ support for Mugabe’s homophobic stance not only helps advance his anti-LGBTQ policies, but also increases the danger to activists, who have faced state-sponsored assaults. In the past year, the organization Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) was subject to raids and arbitrary arrests, leaving several advocates injured and hospitalized.
Mugabe’s anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is also deployed to distract local and international communities from Zimbabwe’s enormous economic and political problems. In addition to presiding over years of economic decline, food shortages, blood diamonds, and political corruption, Mugabe is responsible for a myriad of human rights abuses. Known as the Matabeleland Massacres, an estimated 20,000 individuals from the Ndebele ethnic minority (who mostly oppose Mugabe’s party) were murdered by the government between 1982 and 1987. Nevertheless, this genocide is rarely associated with Mugabe, and he has yet to be held accountable. Meanwhile, the violence has continued. Following the first round of voting in the 2008 elections, more than 200 opposition activists were killed and thousands more were beaten, tortured, and displaced. The new reforms meant t0 protect citizens from this sort of state-sponsored violence have already gone into effect, but many worry that the constitution will not be honored. As the 2013 elections approach, human rights defenders face intimidation and arbitrary arrest.
With continued support from the local community and U.S. conservatives, and condemnation from well-meaning Western activists, Mugabe’s views on homosexuality are sure to remain at the forefront of the conversation. The resulting paradigm is that many Western leaders view him as simply as another homophobic and culturally backward conservative, a narrow description of a man who should be called out for what he truly is—an autocratic leader who is responsible for horrific human rights abuses. U.S. organizations such as the ACLJ, which provide support for Mugabe’s abuses, must similarly be called out and condemned.