Politics & Policy

Zimbabwe: What Went Wrong

As Robert Mugabe has changed from liberator to dictator, his country has suffered.

One of the saddest chapters in Africa’s infamous recent history is that of Zimbabwe, where the official inflation rate currently stands at a staggering 100,000 percent and more than 80 percent of the population is officially unemployed. These horrific statistics are all the work of one man: Zimbabwe’s leader for the past 28 years, Robert Mugabe. With the possible exception of North Korea, no other place on earth owes such a debt of ingratitude to a single individual. While Mugabe blames his country’s troubles on Europe and America, his citizens starve. Yet there is hope, for this Saturday Zimbabweans will go to the polls and — perhaps — have a chance to rid themselves of the albatross that has been hanging around their neck for nearly three decades.

In February 1980 Robert Mugabe won a landslide victory in Zimbabwe’s first free and open election. It was a momentous occasion, and cause for celebration throughout Africa and the world. The people of Zimbabwe had been liberated, and another colonially based, racist white government (the former Rhodesia) had been wiped from the continent. The world rightfully rejoiced, and Zimbabwe, which was soon flush with new foreign aid, seemed to have a bright future ahead of it.

Today, Zimbabwe is a tragically different place. Its chronic economic crisis has led to shortages of food and goods and caused millions of Zimbabweans to flee their country. Those who remain, many of whom once held respectable jobs in offices or in the manufacturing and mining sectors, are now forced to scratch out a meager existence in the black market.

How could this happen? How could a country once described as the “bread basket of Africa” be unable to feed its shrinking population? How could the overwhelming potential that Zimbabwe possessed not long ago have been so disastrously squandered?

At the beginning of Mugabe’s rule, his economic policies involved nationalizing private companies and limiting foreign investment. When this approach did not succeed, he switched gears and liberalized the economy in the early 1990s. This showed promise at first, but uneven application, a prolonged drought, and external economic forces threw the program into discredit, and soon the nation was back to its old ways. By the dawn of the 21st century, Zimbabwe’s sputtering economy had made Mugabe’s grip on power tenuous, so he decided to use the trump card of land reform as a way to strengthen his hold on his base.

Zimbabwe’s history of white minority rule gave it a highly imbalanced legacy of land ownership. Despite being just 1 percent of the population, whites owned nearly 70 percent of the arable land in Zimbabwe at the end of the 20th century. While most white farmers were highly efficient and treated blacks fairly, reasonable Zimbabweans — black and white — recognized that some sort of carefully thought-out land reform was necessary to secure the country’s future.

Yet Mugabe, needing to win favor in the face of growing political opposition, abandoned any thought of negotiation or compromise and started recklessly giving land away. So-called “war veterans” (supposedly of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle of the 1970s, though many were obviously too young to have fought at that time) began marching onto some of Zimbabwe’s most productive commercial farms and driving out their white owners. Most of these “war veterans” knew nothing about farming, but that didn’t matter; the only requirement to seize this fertile land was fervent support for Mugabe. Once-abundant fields sat untilled, and before long agriculture, the economic backbone of Zimbabwe, was broken and the country was in a tailspin.

As Zimbabwe’s troubles multiplied, Mugabe focused his vitriol on false spectres from the past — a supposed threat of neo-colonialism by the West — instead of his own disastrous policies. Despite the desperate condition of his country, the octogenarian leader appears to have no interest in going away quietly. Since Mugabe is facing some realistic competition in this Saturday’s election, including a challenger — Simba Makoni — who was formerly a member of his own ruling party, he has taken the typical steps of a tyrant looking to secure his future: changing the electoral process to allow police into polling stations, banning foreign journalists and election monitors, threatening to deny food to those who oppose him, and calling his opposition treasonous.

Earlier this year, in Kenya, the United States took the lead in brokering a power-sharing agreement between bitter rivals Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga after their heavily contested December election led to a flare-up of brutal, ethnically driven violence. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s personal visit to Nairobi in February has been widely hailed as the difference-maker. It is possible, given the fact that Mugabe will be facing a serious challenge from two formidable foes in Saturday’s poll, and the fact that the economic situation in the country has long since passed the tipping point, that Zimbabwe could face circumstances similar to those Kenya encountered following its election. If that happens, the U.S. must not hesitate to step into the void and help broker a deal that will end Robert Mugabe’s cruel reign and help rekindle hope for the remarkably resilient people of Zimbabwe.

–Greg Houle is a freelance writer and founder of www.africanupdate.com.

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