By Aryeh Neier
SLOWLY – much too slowly – international opinion is being mobilised to bring pressure on the Sudanese government to halt the militia attacks in Darfur that have killed thousands of people and
displaced more than a million.
Unfortunately, nothing is being done to stop another African government that for years has inflicted hardship on its citizens and has now escalated the cruelty to an unprecedented level.
Large numbers of Zimbabweans, many of them weakened by Aids, are in danger of starving to death because President Robert Mugabe, an elderly despot, is blocking food relief for his people.
Mugabe is getting away with murder – because fellow African leaders, notably his South African neighbour President Thabo Mbeki, are defending him or ignoring evidence against him.
Why would Mugabe block the United Nations World Food Programme from delivering food to hungry Zimbabweans? Last year, about half the country’s 12 million people were getting such assistance. No longer.
Mugabe says the country is having a bumper harvest and relief is no longer needed, but it is hard to determine whether this is true. Mugabe has shut down the country’s main independent newspaper, the Daily News. The World Food Programme has been denied permission to assess crops. Other sources of independent information have also been muzzled.
A few brave individuals, such as Archbishop Pius Ncube of Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo, are still speaking out. They report that all around them, large numbers are dying quietly of hunger and disease. Only Mugabe and his coterie claim otherwise. They say the farms are yielding a bountiful harvest.
The farms were violently seized under the land reform from white farmers and their black farm workers by Mugabe’s cronies and war veterans who fought in the 1970s liberation struggle.
The world has been down this path before. The worst famine since World War II took place in China in the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Mao Zedong had initiated his “great leap forward”, which included radical changes in agricultural policies. For a period, it appears, officials in Beijing were themselves deceived about the consequences.
Loyal Communist Party cadres from around the country sent in glowing reports about record harvests. When Beijing began to realise that a disaster was unfolding, officials could not acknowledge this. To do so would be to admit that Mao was responsible for a catastrophe.
No international assistance was sought, and none was obtained. We now know that at least 14 million people, and perhaps as many as 30 million, starved to death because a dictatorship could not admit that the dictator had erred. There were no independent sources of information.
The economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate, has long pointed out that, in our era, famines only take place when governments lack democratic accountability and suppress the dissemination of critical information. This makes it impossible for them to correct mistaken policies in a timely fashion. When I first visited Zimbabwe, more than 20 years ago, the country was known as the breadbasket of southern Africa.
Its agricultural exports were a main source of revenue and seemed to form the basis for enduring economic prosperity. It still had that reputation just a few years ago. The reversal is due to the land seizures, the repressive policies enforced to facilitate the seizures and also to the Aids epidemic.
With an adult infection rate of more than 30%, Zimbabwe is one of the hardest-hit countries in Africa. As elsewhere, the disease is particularly prevalent among those in their most productive years.
One reason the Aids epidemic has ravaged the country so severely is that Mugabe long refused to acknowledge its presence in Zimbabwe. In the era when the disease was associated with homosexuals, it was impossible to deal with because Mugabe was so blatantly homophobic.
The stigma that still attaches to those suffering from the disease, despite the sharp demographic shift in those affected, continues to impede efforts to control its spread. Mugabe is an effective demagogue.
Unfortunately, his victims are his own black citizens whom he has oppressed and impoverished and who are now dying in unprecedented numbers. – International Herald Tribune.
*Aryeh Neier is president of the Open Society Institute in New York.