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Mugabe Strangles His Nation

By Robert I. Rotberg

The noose tightens in Zimbabwe. Earlier this month, the government of President Robert G. Mugabe shut down the country’s only independent newspaper. Last weekend, a High Court judge ruled that the closure was illegal, but the police refused to obey the court and barred the newspaper’s doors. Now that the Daily News and the Daily News on Sunday are gone—and their editorial and press equipment, including 120 computers, have been confiscated—the long-beleaguered people of Zimbabwe are bereft of voice and accountability.

Despots run amuck when the searchlight of responsibility ceases to shine. Without investigative journalism, injurious regimes can perpetrate the most heinous crimes against their own people. The government-owned daily newspapers in Zimbabwe, like radio and television, have long been propaganda organs for Mugabe.

Conditions in Zimbabwe have been desperate for three years or more. The closing of the Daily News deepens the discouragement of many Zimbabweans who are still campaigning for a better future, political freedom and sanity amid the decay of all of their institutions that were once strong and secure.

Friday’s shutdown of the Daily News is typical. The rule of law has largely disappeared as Mugabe has removed or retired judges, and otherwise subverted the judgments of his High Court and Supreme Court. For several years, he has refused—so far, with impunity—to obey decisions to which he has objected.

The national economy is shrinking by at least 15 percent a year, as it has done for six years straight. Schools lack teachers and textbooks. Hospitals hardly function, deprived of basic medicines, supplies, nurses and physicians. Most gas stations lay idle. There is no paper on which to print bank notes, and people stand in long lines trying to obtain cash from banks. Unemployment is over 80 percent, and many hundreds of thousands of farm workers are without any work whatsoever.

Only 10 percent of the country’s normal winter wheat harvest will be reaped this month. There are no seeds available in the country, which was once self-sufficient and a leader in Africa. Plantings for subsistence maize and cash crops will be much reduced this October and November. The money-earning tobacco crop was 20 percent smaller this year than before. Inflation is running at 600 percent per year—and rising. The Zimbabwe dollar, once on par with the U.S. dollar, is now devalued to a 6000 to 1 ratio with American currency. Under these conditions, millions of poor Zimbabweans suffer acutely, while government-linked politicians and operatives spend ill-gotten profits on property at home and overseas.

These tragic conditions are a direct result of Mugabe’s attack on his opponents and those who support them, of wholesale government mismanagement, of regime-wide corruption and looting of the national purse and of Mugabe’s continuing attack on the commercial farmers who once were the backbone of Zimbabwe’s prosperity and jobs.

Mugabe mangled the land issue. There remains neither equity nor production. As recently as last week, relatives of Mugabe illegally and forcefully took farmlands near Harare from small-scale black farmers, not from whites—and it was not the first time that black farmers had lost their land.

Hunger and starvation have been among the many adverse results of the heavily politicized land-grab starting in 1998. There are widespread reports of hunger, alleviated only by food donated by the World Food Program and the U.S. Agency for International Development. But widespread food distribution, especially in areas that had voted against Mugabe, was hampered and limited. The best indicators predict that because farmers cannot obtain fertilizer, take out bank loans or depend on any consistent law and order, hunger and starvation will only escalate in the months to come.

Intimidation of opponents, a feature of the parliamentary elections in 2000 and the presidential elections of 2002, is still rife. The Zimbabwean presidential election was, as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said, blatantly stolen. So were the 2000 elections, but less overtly.

Despite active harassment and some ballot rigging, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) last month managed to win more municipal seats in country-wide elections than the government party and now controls almost all of the major cities, including Harare and Bulawayo. But it is not yet clear whether Mugabe’s regime will in fact permit the MDC victors effectively to exercise their new powers in the cities. A few months ago, the MDC mayor of Harare was suspended—illegally—and frog-marched out of his office.

South Africa could end the Zimbabwean political charade quickly by easing Mugabe, 79, into exile with some of his ill-gotten wealth. Perhaps he could join Charles G. Taylor, the ex-dictator of Liberia, in Nigeria. But South Africa is reluctant to interfere, and President Bush and Secretary Powell’s pressure on South Africa and criticisms of Zimbabwe have produced promises, but no action. It is not clear when South Africa will decide, on behalf of the African Union, that Zimbabwe’s meltdown has harmed South Africa and embarrassed the democrats of Africa sufficiently to produce change.

Mugabe is an African Saddam Hussein and has single-handedly driven a once-prosperous people into wholesale poverty and failure. If ever a country cried out for regime change, Zimbabwe is it.

Robert I. Rotberg is director of the Kennedy School of Government’s Program on Intrastate Conflict. He is the president of the World Peace Foundation.

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