A military coup in Zimbabwe on Wednesday may have ended – at last – the misrule of 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look likely that his removal can pull a once-prospering country from the ditch into which Mugabe drove it.

Mugabe was a hero of Zimbabwe’s independence struggle and took power in 1980. But he wrecked his legacy by brutally repressing his opponents and summarily expropriating white-owned farms, thus destroying the country’s export business. Unemployment has risen past 80 percent; shortages of food and other basic goods haunt a population of about 14 million. Most elections have been rigged.

That horrific record, however, was not the reason for the coup. Rather, it was Mugabe’s firing last week of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was vying for control of the ruling party with Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife.

Some reports suggest that Mnangagwa, if put in power, could reverse some of the regime’s worst mistakes. Reuters reported in September that he was contemplating forming a unity government with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and reaching out to dispossessed white farmers in a bid to revive the agricultural economy.

But according to Reuters, Mnangagwa is not committed to competing with Tsvangirai in a fair election, which he could easily lose. Yet without an election that provides a genuine popular mandate, the chance for reforms that could revive the economy looks small.

That’s why the United States and other Western governments should insist on a prompt restoration of constitutional order and a firm commitment by the military to holding internationally supervised elections next year. The end of Mugabe’s rule offers a fragile opportunity to rescue an African country – but only if it does not lead to the installation of another strongman.

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