Zimbabwe: A New Beginning?
The long national nightmare is over—or is it?
There is a subdued sense the public exultation at President Mugabe’s removal from power on Nov. 15 is the equivalent of singing “The Wicked Witch Is Dead” in the “Wizard of Oz”—with a “wicked wizard” waiting in the wings.
Have Zimbabweans done the equivalent of changing “king log for king stork?”
When the nickname for the just-sworn-in replacement for Robert Mugabe is “Crocodile,” this does not suggest a warm, cuddly man committed to democracy, human rights, honest government, and economic reform. Indeed, it appears to be more a palace coup when Emmerson Mnangagwa, long time Mugabe supporter and vice president, acted after the 93-year old Mugabe dismissed him and moved to install his wife as his successor. It looked as if Mnangagwa’s long, patient wait to assume power in his own right wasn’t going to pay—so, fearing the consequences, he quickly left the country, but not before calling in the chips from his own supporters in the armed forces.
For many, Mugabe’s effort to install his wife, Grace Mugabe, as successor was the last straw. A power-hungry kleptomaniac, with interests only in her own self advancement, she was widely unpopular. Mugabe retained the “Father of His Country” sobriquet as the individual who moved the country from British/white “Rhodesia” control to African control as “Zimbabwe.”
But as he lived on and on and oversaw the economic destruction of the country and its evolution into essentially a one-party dictatorship, he lost support from all but those who continued to benefit from systematically looting the country.
Zimbabwe was an exception to the majority of European colonies in Africa that gained independence with minimal violence. Essentially founded by British entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes, the area was mineral rich and well-suited to agriculture. Enough white British settled in the region to make armed resistance possible, and in 1965 they announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence for “Rhodesia,” led by Ian Smith but without any international recognition.
A guerrilla-style war ensued with Mugabe leading one of two communist-leaning groups. They became sufficiently effective that, combined with extensive international sanctions, they forced Smith to the bargaining table in 1980 and ousted his government.
In a steady progression, however, Mugabe and his party looted public funds and dispossessed 4,000 white farmers who had been productive managers of crop lands, making Zimbabwe “the breadbasket of Africa.” Between 2000 and 2016, annual wheat production fell from 250,000 tons to 60,000 tons, maize dropped from two million tons to 500,000 tons, and coffee production virtually halted with the seizure of white-owned farms. Annual inflation reportedly reached 11,200,000 percent in August 2008, and in January 2009 the government authorized transactions in stable currency such as the U.S. dollar.
Debt spiraled out of sight, and actions such as the uncompensated seizure of farms/property resulted in cutting access to lending institutions such as World Bank and IMF.
Politically, Mugabe and party have been classically authoritarian. Each election since 1980 has been characterized by fraud and corruption. Efforts by opposition parties to find accommodation with Mugabe simply became political traps that discredited those participating without changing the government’s actions and policies.
Long-time political observer/author Cathy Buckle has provided weekly accounts of the pathetic state to which the country’s economy and society have fallen and the brutality of Mugabe’s political repression.
Mr. Crocodile in his inaugural address implied economic and political change to get Zimbabwe moving again. He offered three-months amnesty for returning state funds cached abroad. And he has jailed some obvious offenders, e.g., the former finance minister.
But he will need to do much more to turn on the money taps of loans and debt forgiveness.
Ostensibly, Mr. Crocodile faces presidential elections in August 2018. His primary opponent would be Morgan Tsvangirai leading the Movement for Democratic Change—unless the Crocodile orchestrates an extended delay in the election.
One of the pathetic elements of the long-running Zimbabwe meltdown is that it endured so long. Surrounding African states simply ignored Mugabe depredation—driven by reluctance to act against a national liberation figure. The vast exodus of the white population and departure of talented citizens (who help keep the society afloat with remissions from jobs abroad) apparently don’t fall under “Responsibility to Protect.”
And no Western coalition was willing to assemble a handful of light infantry battalions (all that would have been necessary) to end the disaster.
So Zimbabwe is in the ditch; it will take years, perhaps decades, for recovery.
David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”