In the last few years, Zimbabwe has suffered through an economic crisis that has impoverished the entire nation, the destruction of its agriculture sector, and the theft of elections that its citizens had hoped would end the country’s mismanagement. Incredibly, however, the situation continues to deteriorate. An internationally mediated power-sharing proposal appears to be unraveling and a cholera epidemic is sweeping the country.

The United Nations says the epidemic has killed about 1,000 people and up to 18,000 others have been infected. Yet Zimbabwe’s leaders appear to be digging in — oblivious to the extraordinary costs their misrule is having on the country. President Robert Mugabe claims that the epidemic is over.

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of southern Africa. But when Mr. Mugabe, the former guerrilla leader who has ruled the country since it gained independence in 1980, lost a referendum that would have allowed him to stay in power — the first vote he ever lost — he declared war against white farmers, accusing them of being a fifth column for former imperialist powers. Encouraging former war veterans to take over those farms devastated the economy.

Today, Zimbabwe is on the verge of collapse. A once-mighty food exporter can no longer feed its own citizens. Food supplies and other staples are running out. Millions of people have been forced from the country; those who remain depend on international aid to survive. Unemployment is above 80 percent and prices double every 24 hours; official inflation has reached 231 million percent.

Zimbabweans tried to force Mr. Mugabe and his cronies from power. They gave the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) a majority in parliamentary elections, and voted its leader, Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai, into the presidency. Mr. Mugabe challenged the presidential ballot results and when a runoff was called, Mr. Tsvangirai pulled out of the race after the government unleashed violence on his supporters.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Mugabe won another term, but Mr. Tsvangirai’s humiliation, coupled with international support, pushed Mr. Mugabe and his party to the negotiating table. A power-sharing deal was agreed, but it quickly came apart as Mr. Mugabe disregarded its provisions. The opposition continues its protests as Mr. Mugabe and his pals consolidate their power.

Meanwhile, a cholera epidemic has broken out. Zimbabwe’s economic woes have prevented maintenance of the water sanitation system. Chemicals and even ordinary soap are in short supply. Cholera has hit the country, sickening or killing thousands of people — who get no help from a broke and broken health-care system — and has spread to neighboring countries.

Mr. Mugabe’s determination to cling to power, no matter what the consequences for his people, has earned him international opprobrium. Western leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have said Mr. Mugabe must resign.

More significantly, many African leaders, who are usually extremely reluctant to criticize one of their own, especially one who led the struggle against colonial powers, have said it is time for Mr. Mugabe to go. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu said military force should be used if Mr. Mugabe refuses to step down. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga has called for troops to move into Zimbabwe to end the humanitarian crisis or for the African Union to allow the U.N. to send soldiers.

Action is unlikely. While Mr. Mugabe’s policies constitute a genuine threat to regional security, creating floods of refugees and spreading diseases are just as dangerous and destabilizing as military actions. His peers are not about to provide a precedent for intervention that might one day be used against them. Instead, they have urged Mr. Mugabe to return to the negotiating table and fix the deal with Mr. Tsvangirai.

That is unlikely without the threat of stronger action. Mr. Mugabe has defied the opinion of the majority of Zimbabweans, his fellow African leaders, and that of the world — and paid no price. He blames the West for Zimbabwe’s dire straits, even saying it is responsible for the cholera deaths. His regime remains in power, and the ruling elite continue to skim the money and supplies that ordinary citizens desperately need to survive. He broke off the power-sharing deal when it threatened his control over the country’s security forces, which was his ultimate grip on the country.

A return to negotiations is unlikely to have a different result. Friends of Zimbabwe must put the squeeze on the country’s leadership. Other countries should follow the European Union’s example and impose sanctions on the leadership and its families to make them feel the pain most ordinary Zimbabweans feel: Their accounts should be seized and their travel restricted.

Humanitarian aid must continue — only supplies, no money — and its disbursement should be strictly monitored to ensure it is not diverted.

Neighboring countries should put more pressure on Mr. Mugabe to honor the power-sharing deal and make it clear that there will be painful consequences if he does not. Only then is there hope of ending Zimbabwe’s nightmare.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.