Denouncing Nigeria as a “disgrace,” Robert Mugabe joined an international call for punitive sanctions in 1996 against that country’s military ruler, the late Gen. Sani Abacha, for the hanging of human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Nelson Mandela, then president of South Africa, campaigned to expel Nigeria from the Commonwealth. Now, barely six years later, Mr. Mugabe is resorting to Abacha-like tactics in a bid to cling to power in elections this weekend.

Hailed as a hero for leading a guerrilla campaign against a white-minority regime in the 1970s, Mr. Mugabe became the country’s first president at independence in 1980. He vowed to make Zimbabwe a one-party nation and his African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party “a truly Marxist-Leninist party to ensure the charting of an irreversible social course.” The one-party state was the bitter fruit of one election, one time. Mr. Mugabe “re-elected” himself in 1985, 1990 and 1996, in what Africans have derided as “coconut elections.”

Under his leadership, Zimbabwe’s economy is in tatters. Inflation surges at 112%. The unemployment rate is nearly 60%. Income per capita, $950 at independence in 1980, has dropped to $530. More than 70% of the population now lives below the poverty line and the U.N. estimates that more than half a million of Zimbabwe’s 12.5 million people need emergency food aid. But Mr. Mugabe is more interested in playing the blame game than solving his country’s problems. The country’s trouble, he says, is the fault of British colonialists, greedy Western powers and the white minority.

The sleight of hand has not been lost on voters, who, when given the chance, have made clear how they feel about the promises of Mr. Mugabe’s brand of Swiss-bank socialists cruising around in brand new Mercedes Benzes. Last February, when Mr. Mugabe asked them in a referendum for draconian emergency powers to seize white farms for distribution to landless peasants, they handed him a stiff rebuff.

But, then, they’re not given the chance very often. In the run-up to this election, Mr. Mugabe’s thugs have rampaged through the countryside, terrorizing and murdering perceived opposition supporters. At least 26 Mugabe opponents have been killed and more than 70,000 others displaced since Jan. 1. New laws make criticism of Mr. Mugabe, the police and the army illegal. The office of the Daily News, which has been critical of Mr. Mugabe’s handling of the economy, has repeatedly been firebombed and its editor, William Saidi, has received death threats.

Opposition candidates don’t have it easy either. They are starved of funds, denied access to the state-controlled media, and brutalized by government-hired thugs. Voter rolls are padded with ruling party supporters and phantom voters. Polls say Mr. Mugabe’s challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, would win if the elections were free and fair—if being the operative word.

There might seem to be a role for international supervision here, but who can observe the elections is also tightly controlled. Last month, the government expelled the head of the European election observer mission, prompting the EU to impose travel restrictions on Mr. Mugabe and his aides, and to freeze any European assets they hold. When Washington followed suit with travel bans to the U.S., Zimbabwe lambasted the sanctions as “economic terrorism.”

But while Western sanctions might help, African sanctions would be far more meaningful. Turmoil in Zimbabwe, after all, could destabilize the entire southern African region. Foreign investors have long since fled and over 500,000 Zimbabweans have become refugees in South Africa. As long as the political turmoil in Zimbabwe continues, the various “African Renaissance” plans leaders have drawn up to revitalize the continent will never be more than slogans.

But so far, the region seems determined to shoot itself in the foot. On Feb. 15, the secretary general of the Organization of African Unity, Amara Essy, endorsed Mr. Mugabe’s rejection of foreign election observer teams, arguing that Western countries do not invite African states to monitor elections in their countries. Even more astonishing has been the reaction of southern African leaders to the EU and U.S. sanctions. Instead of joining the international pressure on Mr. Mugabe, they have rallied to his defense.

South African President Thabo Mbeki has lashed out at Western countries, claiming their interest in Zimbabwe stems not from democracy, but from neo-imperialism. President Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania blasted the EU’s sanctions as a new attempt to “divide Africa at Brussels in 2002 just as they did in Berlin in 1884”—a criticism echoed by Mozambique’s president, Joaquim Chissano.

If Zimbabwe blows, African leaders must be held collectively responsible for failing to take care of their own. Time and again, when a crisis brews in an African country, the leaders do the watusi. They wait until it explodes then badger the international community for assistance. At the July 2000 OAU Summit in Lome, Togo, African leaders called for a $13 billion “Marshall Aid” compensation package for Rwanda. The demand grew out of the OAU inquiry into the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which blamed Western powers for failing to intervene to stop the mass slaughter. But did these leaders themselves intervene in Rwanda? In Zimbabwe?

Last Tuesday, President Bush met a delegation of southern African leaders from Angola, Botswana and Mozambique, seeking aid. He should have sent them back to Zimbabwe. Promises from donors, like that given by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien recently for $500 million toward African development, must reflect confidence that it will be well spent.

Withholding aid is a way to introduce accountability to a situation that has seen little. The international community cannot take Africa seriously if its own leaders aren’t serious about solving its problems. That, after all, is what Mr. Mugabe told African heads of state when he took action against Nigeria’s brutal military regime.