Lawmakers on Thursday urged U.S. officials to maintain stringent pressure on the regime of longtime Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and questioned U.S. funding of a regional association that declared the country’s recent election results credible despite widespread allegations of voting irregularities.
Mugabe won reelection and an extension of his 33-year rule on July 31 against former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
However, Tsvangirai called the election a "farce" after reports of voter intimidation and suppression particularly in urban areas, the typical base of support for the former prime minister’s opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). As many as 1 million urban voters were turned away from polling stations because either their names were not on the rolls or they chose the wrong ward.
An official for the U.S.-funded Southern African Development Community (SADC), which monitored the elections as Western observers were denied entry, said the elections were "generally credible" and pointed to a lack of violence.
Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a hearing that the evidence suggests otherwise.
"I’ve been in Zimbabwe and seen the ads run by [Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)]," he said. "One ad shows a truck smashing into the back of a car. The gist of it was driving can be hazardous to your health but so can voting against ZANU-PF."
"The unity government has collapsed, the opposition has been sidelined indefinitely, and the ZANU-PF hardliners are in control," he added.
"It is truly distressing the situation we’re at right now."
Mugabe and Tsvangirai formed a power-sharing agreement in the aftermath of the 2008 elections, which erupted in violence after Mugabe’s initial loss and a crackdown on the opposition by state security forces.
Any prospect of a similar role for the opposition following the July elections appears to be dim as Mugabe has moved to consolidate power. He appointed a new cabinet Tuesday filled with long-time allies accused of repressing the press and the judicial system and has told his defeated opponents that they can "commit suicide if they so wish."
Royce questioned why the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) continues to fund SADC, especially after the association "added insult to injury" by electing Mugabe as its vice chairman. USAID provides about $20 million in assistance funds to SADC for economic growth, market integration, democracy and governance, agricultural development, and natural resource management.
Todd Amani, an administrator for USAID’s Africa Bureau, said his agency did not provide funding for SADC’s elections observation efforts but that the organization serves an important role at the regional level.
"We feel that SADC in the future is an important institution for many reasons," such as economic integration, he said.
"It looks like we have some work to do in terms of their observation efforts, and we will work with them to do that."
SADC has also joined a chorus of international groups pressing the United States to remove its sanctions on the president’s regime, which include a travel ban and asset freeze on more than 100 individuals and entities linked to Mugabe. The European Union eased similar restrictions earlier this year.
Mugabe blames much of the economic hardships in Zimbabwe on the sanctions and threatened to force foreign companies to cede majority shares to local investors last month after declaring that "enough is enough."
Shannon Smith, deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said the United States is reviewing its sanctions policy after Mugabe’s recent victory but has no intention of scaling it back.
"A select few in Zimbabwe remain committed to maintaining power and wealth at the expense of their people and their nation," Smith testified. "We therefore continue to maintain targeted sanctions aimed at those who are actively undermining democracy in Zimbabwe."
About 2.2 million people will likely need food assistance during Zimbabwe’s upcoming "hunger period"—compared to 1.6 million a year ago—that stretches through March and results from drought conditions and the poor performance of the agricultural sector, Amani said.
Mugabe’s police forces have guaranteed retribution for dissenting from his regime in addition to seizing much of the farmland, said Arthur Gwagwa, international advocacy coordinator for the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum.
"The country is going through a very difficult time," Gwagwa, who visited Zimbabwe last week, said. "They are whispering; they are disappointed about what happened. But they do not have the freedom to talk about such issues in public for fear of prosecution."
State security forces continue to arbitrarily detain and beat MDC opposition leaders and pressure lawyers representing them, Gwagwa said. Mugabe could also resurrect a law that requires civil society organizations to officially register with the government and surrender to heightened scrutiny, he said.
Gwagwa strongly advised the United States to continue its "action for action" sanctions policy.
"When the world is retreating in fear, the U.S. should not cower but should uphold its ideals that make this country great," he said.
"It should stand as a moral leader to fill that particular vacuum that other people of weak spine are afraid to fill."