Another African Tragedy

By Ayittey, George B. N. | The World and I, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Another African Tragedy


Ayittey, George B. N., The World and I


Robert Mugabe was hailed as a hero and swept into office as Zimbabwe's first president in 1980. He vowed to make Zimbabwe a one-party nation and his African National Union-Patriotic Front a truly Marxist-Leninist party to ensure the charting of an irreversible social course and create a socialist ideology.

In the beginning, Mugabe earned plaudits for expanding educational and health-care opportunities to blacks and preaching reconciliation to whites. But these achievements were subsequently obliterated by massive economic mismanagement, corruption, and crony capitalism.

Zimbabwe's economy is now in tatters. Commodity shortages are rampant, and inflation surges at 112 percent. Business closures due to attacks by militants--more than 30 businesses were attacked in May 2001 alone-- have pushed the unemployment rate to nearly 60 percent. Income per capita, which was U.S.$950 at independence in 1980, has dropped to $530. More than 70 percent of Zimbabweans now live below the poverty line.

Kamikaze kleptocrats

Starvation looms, and the United Nations estimates that more than half a million of Zimbabwe's 12.5 million people need emergency food aid. The state treasury is empty, pillaged by kamikaze kleptocrats and further drained at the rate of $3 million a month by a mercenary involvement in Congo's war.

Mugabe angrily rejects responsibility for the mess. Instead, he blames British colonialists, greedy Western powers, and the white minority. But Zimbabwean voters know better than to believe in "Swiss bank" socialists cruising around in a brand-new Mercedes-Benz. When Mugabe asked them in a February 15, 2000, referendum for draconian emergency powers to seize white farms for distribution to landless peasants, they handed him a stiff rebuff, rejecting his mad grab for power by 55 to 45 percent.

To be sure, inequitable distribution of land remains a problem. Whites, who account for less than 1 percent of the population, own more than half of the country's most fertile farmland. But Mugabe has ruthlessly exploited this issue at election time to fan racial hatred, demonize his opponents as "colonial stooges," solidify his vote among landless rural voters, and divert attention from his disastrous Marxist-Leninist policies and ill-fated misadventures in the Congo.

Mugabe conveniently skips mention of past land redistribution programs that were so grotesquely mismanaged that Britain withdrew financial support in 1992, after contributing more than $64 million. Nor does he bring up the fact that most of the land purchased for redistribution to landless peasants went instead to his cronies. Yet, he made it a campaign issue in the March 9--11 elections--as he always did in the past--that he had reelected himself in what angry Africans deride as "coconut elections" in 1985, 1990, and 1996.

Farcical elections

Essentially, Zimbabwe has held farcical elections in which the deck is hideously stacked against the opposition candidates. They are starved of funds, denied access to the state-controlled media, and brutalized by government-hired thugs, as the police watch. By contrast, the incumbent enjoys access to enormous state resources: state media, vehicles, the police, the military, and civil servants are all commandeered to ensure his reelection.

Further, the entire electoral process itself is rigged. Voter rolls are padded with ruling-party supporters and phantom voters, while opposition supporters are purged. The electoral commissioner is in the pocket of the ruling party, as are the judges who might settle any election disputes. …

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