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Editor’s Memo

Killing Zim

THE latest edition of the Atlantic Monthly, an influential US political magazine, has landed on my desk. It contains an article on Zimbabwe by Pulitzer Prize winner Samantha Power who

lectures at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Her thoughts on Zimbabwe, coming after a visit here when she met a wide variety of people, will be of interest to readers.

The Zimbabwe case, she argues, “illustrates the prime importance of accountability as an antidote to idiocy and excess”. Her article is appropriately titled “How To Kill A Country”.

Repudiating Ian Smith’s contention that the black majority was incapable of governing, Power believes Zimbabwe “offers testament not to some inherent African inability to govern, but to a minority rule as oppressive and inconsiderate of the welfare of citizens as its ignominious white predecessor”.

Robert Mugabe has by his actions compiled a “how-to” manual for national destruction, she says.

“The country’s economy in 1997 was the fastest growing in all of Africa; now it is the fastest shrinking,” Power says. “A onetime net exporter of maize, cotton, beef, tobacco, roses, and sugarcane, it now exports only its educated professionals who are fleeing by the tens of thousands.

“Although Zimbabwe has some of the richest farmland in Africa, children with distended bellies have begun arriving at school looking like miniature pregnant women.

“How could the breadbasket of Africa have deteriorated so quickly into the continent’s basket case? The answer is Robert Mugabe…”

Power describes a trip through the Mazowe valley, once the “breadbasket of the breadbasket”.

“Yet driving through it today is like visiting a refugee camp that has been hit by a hurricane. Fields that should brim with knee-high, forest-green winter wheat now contain only the crackling yellow stubble of last year’s crop. The barbed wire that once hemmed in cattle has been ripped away by squatters who have plopped down cheap cement houses in the middle of arable fields and killed off cows and sheep for food.”

Power points out that Mugabe’s campaign of racist expropriation is not new.

“Mugabe’s belief that he can strengthen his flagging popularity by destroying a resented but economically vital minority group is one that dictators elsewhere have shared,” she says. “Paranoid about their diminishing support, Stalin wiped out the wealthy kulak farming class, Idi Amin purged Uganda’s Indian commercial class, and, of course, Hitler went after Jewish businesses even though Germany was already reeling from the Depression. Whatever spikes in popularity these moves generated, the economic damage was profound, and the dictators had to exert great effort to mask it.”

Which leads the author to examine the significance of the closure of the Daily News, a move clearly designed to limit the flow of information about Zimbabwe’s deteriorating condition.

In a 24-page appeal to the international community delivered in July, Mugabe’s cabinet defended the land seizures as “empowering the poor”, and criticised donors’ scepticism towards what it called “pro-poor” policies.

“Everyone and everything was responsible for food shortages except the real culprit, Mugabe himself,” Power says. “By exaggerating Zimbabwe’s crop yields in Potemkin fashion, the cabinet downplayed its needs, making it impossible for the WFP to get from donors – already stretched thin in Iraq, Afghanistan and Liberia – the food Zimbabwe will need to stave off widespread starvation in 2004.”

She describes the formation of ruling-party militias as typical of tyrants who never stop worrying about the loyalty of their militaries.

You can see in Zimbabwe Africa’s worst tendencies in microcosm, Power says. But she rebuts sceptics who argue that democracy promotes tyrannies of the majority.

“When a ruler operates without constraint he can institute a tyranny of the minority,” she argues, “and he can plunder his country’s economy and starve his people without any corrective.”

Only democratic accountability can provide the bedrock concept that no developed or developing country can live without, Power argues.

“An outspoken press, a healthy opposition, periodic elections, and an independent judiciary are rightly valued for themselves, but their greatest virtue is practical: they deter and thwart top-down demolition.”

Despite every effort to destroy his country, Mugabe has not destroyed its spirit, Power says, pointing out that despite torture opposition activists remain brazen in their dissent. Mugabe’s mounting crackdown is testament to his frustration with the resilience of civil society.

Mugabe and Smith share a common misconception, Power concludes. “They both fail to realise that a government cannot survive indefinitely when it advances the political and economic desires of the few at the expense of the many.”

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