WASHINGTON—African leaders have a knack of blaming everyone but themselves for their continent’s woes. Last August, they demanded $777 trillion in reparations from Western Europe and the Americas for enslaving Africans while colonizing the continent, an amount that exceeded the total sum of the gross national products of all the countries in the Western Hemisphere. Most Africans greeted the demand with a yawn. Not because slavery and colonialism did not inflict deep wounds on the continent. Rather, Africa’s leaders have overused “external factors” as convenient alibis to conceal their own failures and abdicate responsibility for their failings.

Now, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, once a hero to his people, is following the blame-game tradition. Sadly, Africa’s leaders and supporters around the world are letting him get away with it.

After 20 years of mismanagement and corruption, Zimbabwe’s economy is in tatters. There is a chronic shortage of mealie meal, the nation’s dietary staple. Inflation surged to 60% a year, unemployment hovers near 50%, foreign investors have fled and a serious fuel shortage cripples economic production. The Zimbabwean dollar, worth two U.S. dollars at the time of the country’s independence in 1980, is now worth three cents. With interest rates at 55%, domestic investment remains frozen. Per-capita income has fallen from $950, in 1980, to $600 today. About 61% of the population live below the poverty line, according to the recently released Zimbabwe Human Development Report. One-eighth of the population is infected with AIDS. Mugabe’s decision last year to send 11,000 troops to fight in neighboring Congo’s civil war cost his cash-strapped government $1.2 million a day.

Mugabe is now casting about for scapegoats. He angrily rejects any criticism of his government’s policies, blaming greedy Western powers, “that monstrous creature“ (the International Monetary Fund), the Asian financial crisis and white commercial farmers for his troubles. To deal with the country’s economic crisis, he asked the people of Zimbabwe for draconian emergency powers and an extension of his 20-year rule. He also sought authority to seize white farms without compensation for distribution to landless peasants. Zimbabweans resoundingly rejected his requests.

Stunned by his first defeat in 20 years of virtually unchallenged rule, Mugabe vowed retribution and played his trump card: He sent his guerrilla-war veterans to occupy white farmlands. Disregarding the February referendum, Zimbabwe’s rubber-stamp parliament rammed through legislation authorizing the government to seize land from white farmers without compensation. More than 1,000 farms have been occupied. Curiously, 10 such occupied farms are owned by black opposition leaders. The police, under instructions from Mugabe, have refused to evict the war veterans, who have threatened civil war should Mugabe’s party lose postponed parliamentary elections.

Violence, however, is increasingly aimed at intimidating the opposition and black commercial farm workers, who are often beaten unless they surrender their membership cards in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the main opposition party, and pledge support to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. In nine weeks of political violence, 15 persons have been killed, including 12 MDC supporters. Hundreds have been beaten up or had their houses burned for their allegiance to the opposition party.

To be sure, there is basic inequity in the distribution of land in Zimbabwe. Whites account for only about 1% of Zimbabwe’s population of 12.5 million, yet 4,500 white farmers continue to own nearly one-third of the country’s most fertile farmland.

The Lancaster House accords, the legal basis of Zimbabwe’s independence, established a land-reform program under which land was to be purchased from white farmers for redistribution to landless peasants. Australia, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United States and the World Bank provided funds for the program. So far, the government has distributed more than 1 million acres. But the land went to 400 wealthy Zimbabweans, most of them Mugabe cronies. Such grotesque mismanagement of the program prompted Britain to withdraw financial support in 1992, after contributing more than $60 million. The remaining donors have suspended about $10 million in land-reform aid.

White Zimbabweans, who number about 20,000, are no saints. But in blaming them for the country’s economic woes, Mugabe has borrowed a page out of Idi Amin’s playbook. In the early 1970s, Amin expelled Asian businessmen from Uganda, seized their commercial properties and distributed them to his cronies. Aping Amin’s tactics could be very costly. Zimbabwe is the world’s No. 2 exporter of tobacco, with revenue from tobacco sales, about $400 million annually, accounting for more than 30% of Zimbabwe’s export earnings. If the tobacco crop is held hostageto government mismanagement and political turmoil, farmers would face ruin and be unable to service their bank debts.

Mugabe is ruthlessly exploiting the land issue to fan racial hatred, solidify his vote among landless ruralvoters, maintain his grip on power and to divert attention from his disastrous policies and ill-fated misadventures in the Congo. The economic needs of the country are being sacrificed to his desperate search for survival. The reaction of the presidents of Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa to all this has been disappointing. Last month, they gathered at a mini-summit at Victoria Falls to offer moral support to Mugabe. They endorsed Mugabe’s call for Britain, the former colonial ruler, to pay white farmers whose land had been seized but did not condemn the violence and the killings.

The international media have also obliged the Zimbabwe president by casting the issue in racial paradigms. Stories and photographs of two dead white farmers were beamed around the globe, with scant mention of 11 blacks killed by Mugabe’s thugs. Western commentators, afflicted with political correctness, remain conspicuously silent while black U.S. civil-rights leaders, viewing the land-redistribution issue as a “historical injustice,” have failed to call Mugabe to account. They have not condemned the killings of supporters of the opposition, nor have they demanded an accounting from Mugabe of the money his government received for land redistribution. At a minimum, supporters of Africa should urge Mugabe to respect the will of his people and high court, which has ordered the war veterans to vacate the lands they have occupied. It is this Western and black American acquiescence that is helping push yet another African country over the cliff to implosion.

In Zimbabwe, Mugabe has had 20 years to resolve the land issue. His time should be up. The people of Zimbabwe must be given an opportunity to choose a new leader, in a free, fair and transparent election, to carry out land redistribution. Senegal was saved when it held such an election in February, and its former president, Abdou Diouf, accepted defeat and stepped down peacefully after 19 years in office.

The international community and friends of Africa can help the people of Zimbabwe, not by sucking up to Mugabe, but by monitoring the forthcoming elections to ensure that voters aren’t intimidated in their choices.