The sadness of Zimbabwe

By Roger Bate

ROBERT Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, spent the spring allegedly rigging an election, the summer bulldozing the urban settlements where it is believed the opposition had majority support, and t

he time in between amending the constitution to again extend his rule and again curtail property rights of his citizens.


Then the United Nations invited him to their General Assembly, where he accused his enemies in the North of causing the calamitous state of his country. His country cannot feed itself because agricultural production has plummeted since white farms were expropriated. The resulting loss of foreign currency earnings means there is not enough fuel even for ambulances – patients in some rural areas are now moved with make-shift ox-drawn ambulances. The hundreds of thousands displaced by the clearance of their homes and informal businesses are now penniless refugees.


It is hard to believe that even Mugabe thinks he can get to retirement (announced to be 2008) unscathed, but so far he has gotten away with doing exactly what he likes. Hamstrung by indecision, the UN will not act, the African Union is once again demonstrating that it is a club for dictators, and that its “democratic” actions against dictatorial regimes, such as in Togo, are isolated cases against those outside the clique. The UK appears incapable of any meaningful action and in the US democracy support has been slashed.


Perhaps saddest and most baffling though, is that the opposition in Zimbabwe, unquestionably the government-in-waiting, has been so quiet. In doing so, it has prolonged the crisis. There is an urgent need for personal leadership which will generate a powerful rallying point.


This beautiful and once bountiful country is being ruined; people are being displaced, dispossessed and terrorised by the state. A third of the population may have already left, for the rest there is no apparent likelihood of civil disorder or armed conflict. And without an obvious conflict the impotent international community will apparently not intervene, as it has done in Sudan and elsewhere in Africa.


International diplomacy is active but it is, by definition, limited. Two weeks ago, Jendayi Frazer, Assistant Secretary of State for African announced tough travel sanctions to be placed on more cronies of the Mugabe government and their extended families. According to Reuters, Ms Frazer said on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York: “We are continuing to try to call attention to the human rights abuses, that the last election was not fair and that there was not a level playing field there.”

It is a pity these restrictions weren’t effective in preventing Mugabe’s ignominious and galling display of chutzpah at the UN.


Mugabe, like his fellow dictators at this UN jamboree spoke well beyond the allotted five minutes, decried western intervention, denied that man-made causes (other than those from Northern sanctions) were harming his people and sanctimoniously called for greater transparency – this, from a man who stole the last election. His acting information minister even claimed Hollywood was being manipulated by the CIA to deliver anti-Mugabe rhetoric in the movie The Interpreter. The theme revolves around a dictator going to speak at the UN and getting up to no good in the process.


The International Monetary Fund was preparing to expel Zimbabwe for non-payment of debt, which has only happened once in its history (Czechoslovakia in 1953), but US$120 million was produced just in time as part payment. This money, it is suspected, was part-raided from private bank accounts on the grounds of a newly-minted technicality over holdings of foreign exchange. In any event, given that money is fungible and the Mugabe regime has stolen so much, the IMF has undoubtedly accepted stolen funds.


The US is taking action against Mugabe while trying to support the Zimbabwean people suffering from food shortages and human rights abuses. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with South African President Thabo Mbeki after the UN meeting and seemingly encouraged a stronger stance against Zimbabwe. And Mbeki has responded, abandoning his long-held faith in “quiet diplomacy”.


Zimbabwean bank and treasury officials have been meeting recently with their counterparts in South Africa, who offered a deal to help Zimbabwe with its overdue payments to the IMF. However, since the deal including the conditions that Mugabe should open talks with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, and repeal a series of repressive laws and implement ambitious economic reforms, Mugabe rejected the emergency deal out of hand and berated his officials for coming home with such a deal.


Meanwhile action by the US is in reality weakening. Deflection and blaming Mbeki for lack of action is no longer cutting any ice with exiled Zimbabweans or concerned Africa-watchers, and the new travel bans are in reality a small addition to existing sanctions. No one has seriously been calling for military intervention, but some have demanded far greater actions, including strong economic pressure on neighbouring states, changing trade deal priorities to other regions, lowering of general aid and increasing US assistance to civil society groups inside Zimbabwe.


Democracy aid has been slashed from $7 million to $3 million for the new calendar year. This is a disgrace, when so much can be gained with so little in this wretched country.


Who knows, maybe Frazer’s overall approach may eventually pay dividends. But for now it smacks of the African style diplomacy she is admired for understanding – no meaningful action. Ultimately, the US has to hold the region hostage over Zimbabwe, or we will simply watch more Zimbabweans (many with HIV) leave their country with nothing or die from the cold, starvation and disease.


There is also the danger that Zimbabwe’s excesses will be copied elsewhere. Namibia expropriated its first white farm last month, and pressure on Mbeki in South Africa to do likewise has finally paid off with an announced appropriation to take place shortly in South Africa’s North West Province. There are many differences between these countries and Zimbabwe, but bad behaviour that goes unpunished encourages those with similar agendas.


Finally, what is the point of development aid to a region that will condone mass murder and the wholesale theft of property rights? There should be a cost for those in power who are simply waiting for Mugabe to die.


* Roger Bate is a Resident Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.