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Zimbabwe Remains a Conundrum

August 21, 2009


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently made an important tour of seven African nations. One of her stops was in South Africa where, inter alia, she was seeking support for dealing with Zimbabwe [“Hillary Clinton presses for South Africa role in Zimbabwe,” by Sebastien Berger, Telegraph (UK), 7 August 2009].

“The United States, troubled by what it sees as an absence of reform in Harare, has no plans either to offer major development aid or to lift sanctions against Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president, and some of his supporters. Washington wants more evidence of political, social and economic reforms by Mr Mugabe and the government he shares with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s prime minister.”

South Africa is home to some 3 million Zimbabwean refugees who have fled stifling conditions found in their homeland as a result of over 30 years of tyrannical and incompetent leadership by Robert Mugabe. The last presidential elections in Zimbabwe had raised hopes that a new government would be voted into office, but many observers believe that Mugabe stole the election from Tsvangirai. Pressed by the international community, Mugabe eventually agreed to a powersharing arrangement that Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change party claims is routinely breached. Secretary Clinton praised South Africa for working hard to secure the powersharing deal but insisted “that more action should be taken to ‘mitigate the negative effects of the continuing presidency of President Mugabe’, and that the ‘reform movement’ in Zimbabwe should be strengthened.” According to Berger, “Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s new president … has taken a harder line on Zimbabwe than his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, but the US wants more.”


There was one recent sign of hope when Prime Minister Tsvangirai made an appearance at Zimbabwe’s Armed Forces Day celebration and was saluted by Zimbabwe’s hard-line generals [“Mugabe’s generals salute Tsvangirai, at last,” Harare Tribune, 11 August 2009].

“Zimbabwean generals known as hard-line supporters of President Robert Mugabe saluted former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, … a gesture welcomed as a public boost for the country’s struggling coalition government. During presidential campaigning last year, generals vowed never to salute Tsvangirai, saying their loyalty was to Mugabe. But they showed Tsvangirai that mark of respect as he attended his first Armed Forces Day ceremony as prime minister.”

Although Tsvangirai remains committed to the powersharing arrangement, the international community has seen few changes in how things are governed inside Zimbabwe.

“In July, Human Rights Watch that said Zimbabwean troops had killed more than 200 people at diamond fields in the east, forced children to search for diamonds and beat villagers who got in the way. Zimbabwe’s coalition government denied the allegations, saying the military was there to secure the area, about 150 miles (250 kilometers) east of Harare, where mining is managed by the state’s Mining Development Corp. Mugabe repeated the denials [at the Armed Forces Day event], saying soldiers ‘assisted in eradicating the illegal panning and illicit dealing activities in these precious mineral resource areas. Their work at the mine fields has helped a lot as they now have law and order in the diamond mines with legal miners doing proper mining work.'”

Illegal panning and illicit dealing were probably behind the government’s actions. It wants to control the diamond mines because they are enriching corrupt government officials [“Zimbabwe’s Diamond Fields Enrich Ruling Party, Report Says,” by Celia W. Dugger, New York Times, 26 June 2009].

“[Mugabe’s] party, ZANU-PF, has used the money from diamonds — smuggled out of the country or illegally sold through the Reserve Bank — to reinforce its hold over the security forces, which seemed to be slipping last year as the value of soldiers’ pay collapsed with soaring inflation, Human Rights Watch researchers said. … Villagers from the area, some of them children, are being forced to work in mines controlled by military syndicates and have complained of being harassed, beaten and arrested, the report says. ‘It’s a big cash cow for the military and the police, especially since Zimbabwe is virtually bankrupt,’ Dewa Mavhinga, the Zimbabwean lawyer who was the main researcher for the report, said in an interview. … In December, soldiers rioted in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, to protest pay that had become virtually worthless as inflation increased to astronomical levels. Analysts and Western diplomats said at the time that Mr. Mugabe might lose his grip on power if he were unable to sustain the patronage he had deployed for decades.”

Unhappy soldiers are not the only troubles facing Zimbabwe. Resident doctors in Zimbabwe went on strike to protest their poor working conditions and low pay [“Patients Stranded in Zimbabwe As Hospital Doctors Continue Strike,” by Sandra Nyaira, Voice of America, 12 August 2009].

“Junior doctors want an increase in salaries from US$390 a month to US$3,000 to be in equal shares by the government, hospitals and international donor organizations. … Dr. Douglas Gwatidzo of the Association of Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights said that while the grievances of the hospital residents or junior doctors were legitimate, their demands are unreasonable as the government is strapped and the country is still recovering from a decade of economic decline.”

Many of Zimbabwe’s students are also unhappy; but their protests have been met by force [“University of Zimbabwe students arrested,” Harare Tribune, 12 August 2009]. Adding to country’s woes are food shortages [“Zimbabwe Still Facing Significant Food Deficits for 2009-2010 Crop Year,” by Patience Rusere, Voice of America, 10 August 2009].

“The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance says Zimbabwe’s food security outlook remains doubtful with just 45% of humanitarian funding requirements met or some US$315 million of the US$718 million sought in a U.N. coordinated appeal. OCHA said a recent food assessment by Harare and the World Food Organization pointed to a 2009-2010 shortfall of some 900,000 tonnes of cereals, in part because the winter wheat harvest is shaping up to be a poor one.”

Although climate conditions have an effect on Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, some of its troubles are self-inflicted. The CIA World Factbook states:

“The government’s land reform program, characterized by chaos and violence, has badly damaged the commercial farming sector, the traditional source of exports and foreign exchange and the provider of 400,000 jobs, turning Zimbabwe into a net importer of food products.”

Some bright spots can be found in the midst of Zimbabwe’s darkness. IT is one of them [“Zimbabwe to deploy fiber-optic cable,” by Michael Malakata, IDG News Service, 12 August 2009].

“Zimbabwe has started developing a fiber-optic cable aimed at improving the country’s telecommunications in a bid to regain its position as having the second-fastest-growing communications sector in Southern Africa. The Zimbabwe Investment Agency (ZIA), the country’s development agency, said a project is under way to develop a fiber-optic telecom link between the country’s capital, Harare, and the eastern city of Mutare, which borders Mozambique. This means that Zimbabwe joins other Southern and East African countries including Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda and Uganda in developing fiber-optic cable networks.”

The international community is mostly standing on the sidelines watching Zimbabwe and waiting for things to change. Some of the old political guard there is starting to die off, like the late Vice President Joseph Wilfred Msika, who died in early August, but waiting for the Mugabe generation to die off doesn’t seem like a sound plan to Greg Mills, director of the Brenthurst Foundation (a research organization in Johannesburg that promotes economic growth in Africa), and Jeffrey Herbst, the provost of Miami University of Ohio [“Bring Zimbabwe In From the Cold,” New York Times, 27 May 2009]. They write:

“Western governments have been standoffish even though the unity government has taken important steps, notably lowering Zimbabwe’s 231 million percent inflation by abandoning the Zimbabwean dollar in favor of the American dollar and other foreign currencies. … Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States wasn’t ready to resume aid to Zimbabwe and urged the ouster of Mr. Mugabe, while other Western donors have said they will not provide significant development assistance until there is firm evidence that the power-sharing agreement is working. Human Rights Watch has gone further by arguing that development aid should not be released until there are ‘irreversible changes on human rights, the rule of law and accountability.’ The reluctance of Western governments and human rights groups to embrace the current Zimbabwean government is understandable. There is, in particular, no real reason to believe that Mr. Mugabe, after decades of dictatorial rule and abuse, has suddenly embraced multiparty democracy. If he had, after all, he would not be president now. But Zimbabwe may well be a case where the best is the enemy of the good. Mr. Tsvangirai’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change, went into the unity government with its eyes open. ‘We had won the election but we did not have the support of the military,’ Mr. Tsvangirai told us this month in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. ‘We did not want to be the authors of chaos. Instead we need to soft-land the crisis, stabilize the situation through peace and stability and democratic consolidation.’ Accordingly, he views Mr. Mugabe as ‘both part of the problem and part of the solution: we cannot untangle the tentacles of the state without him.’ Mr. Tsvangirai has set himself the difficult task of trying to dislodge Mr. Mugabe’s ousted party from the state apparatus that it has controlled for more than a quarter-century. In many countries that process would require extensive violence against the regime. The ‘soft landing’ that the Movement for Democratic Change has chosen is a difficult path but one which it has firm strategic reasons to opt for, reasons that deserve more careful consideration from international donors.”

Mr. Tsvangirai is correct in viewing Mugabe as both part of the problem and part of the solution. When he finally leaves power (probably by dying of natural causes), there will be a significant (and probably violent) power struggle within the country. President Mugabe could change that by stepping down in favor of Mr. Tsvangirai at some future time. A peaceful transition of power would help Zimbabwe to be embraced by the international community and open it up to the development assistance it so desperately needs. Mills and Herbst detail some of those needs.

“The United Nations calculates that just 6 percent of the work force is formally employed. More than 65 percent of the population urgently needs food assistance. Nearly 100,000 people have been struck by cholera in the last six months. While it used to be called the breadbasket of southern Africa, Zimbabwe now produces only about one-third of the grain it needs; tobacco, once its main export crop, has fallen to around one-sixth of the 2000 peak, the effect of the seizure of white-owned farms begun in earnest this decade. Revealing as they are, these figures do not tell the full story. Take the University of Zimbabwe. Once a prestigious southern African institution, today it is without functioning sewers or running water. Many of its 12,000 students have left, its two teaching hospitals close intermittently, and departments like geology and surveying are shuttered. Lacking chemicals and equipment, the chemistry department stopped all experiments in 2007.”

Mills and Herbst believe that Zimbabwe can’t wait until Mugabe dies for help to arrive. They urge international donors to start supporting Tsvangirai’s transition now by establishing a single entry point for development aid “in the prime minister’s office, instead of allowing aid to go directly to ministries that may be run by Mugabe partisans. Donors should support this effort as a way to strengthen Mr. Tsvangirai. … Instead of standing back and waiting, donors should do their part to help bring Zimbabwe back from the brink.” The way forward in Zimbabwe is not clear cut — that’s why the country remains a conundrum. If the Prime Minister can work his magic with military leaders and manages to keep the support of the people, efforts to strengthen his position could provide long-term benefits. If the ruling party manages to co-opt international aid as a way of staying in power, then development efforts will have set the country back. Whatever way forward is selected, the international community should choose its steps carefully.

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