Tropical Malady: Zimbabwe's Precipitous Decline

By Lerer, Noam | Harvard International Review, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Tropical Malady: Zimbabwe's Precipitous Decline


Lerer, Noam, Harvard International Review


Much attention has been paid to the development of democracy in the Middle East and the struggle to keep it afloat in places like Russia. The struggle is usually portrayed as a battle waged by an initially dysfunctional democracy on an authoritarian government that promises to provide law and order. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe has succeeded in bringing the worst of both worlds: his country, once one of the most prosperous in Africa, is becoming an increasingly authoritarian state with a moribund economy. As Zimbabwe begins to spin out of his control, Mugabe is tightening his grip on what is left.

Zimbabwe's economy has deteriorated steadily since the beginning of this decade. After expending large amounts of resources intervening in the war in neighboring Congo, Mugabe turned on internal enemies. Sensing his popularity sliding in a country he had run since its independence in 1980, he embarked on a land redistribution program in 2002, giving the fertile land owned by white farmers to blacks. While some see land redistribution as a necessary measure to right the historical wrongs of white colonialism and to promote more equitable income distribution, others see it as the blatant seizure of private property. Beyond the arguments, the methods used by Mugabe to effect the redistribution have led to chaos. The seizure of land was extremely violent, with white farmers being driven from the land and seized by mobs operating under the aegis of the government. Official institutions such as Zimbabwe's National Youth Service, ostensibly a peace corps, have been used to attack resisting farmers and have also been accused of raping children. It is estimated that only 600 of an original 4,500 white farmers have remained in the country since the land redistribution program began. Farms are often given to cronies of the government, but none of them have been provided with supplies promised by the government. As a result, Zimbabwe, once a net grain exporter, is now a recipient of aid from the UN World Food Programme. More than half of the population is believed to be at risk for famine.

With the collapse of Zimbabwe's agricultural sector came the decline of the rest of the economy. Zimbabwe is currently suffering a fuel shortage, record unemployment, and an inflation rate nearing 500 percent. The currency depreciation has outpaced the ability of the government to print money, and there is now a shortage of banknotes. The government imposed strict price controls and set an official exchange rate in 2001, but this has only led to a flourishing black market.

The failure of government efforts to impose control on the economy has caused political oppression to increase. …

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