Zimbabwe's prospects

This prosperous-appearing capital city is a modern Potemkin village. Stores and hotels are empty, businesses are shutting their doors, and tourists are absent. Downtown Harare is a lifeless shell following President Robert Mugabe's willful destruction of his nation's economy.

Political leaders, whether the ebullient architects of June's stunning vote in parliamentary elections for the new Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), or the glum Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) followers of Mr. Mugabe, sit in their offices wondering whether the president will change his dictatorial ways.

Last month's elections produced a meaningful opposition for the first time. Of the 120 elected parliamentary seats, 57 went to the MDC, one to an allied party, and 62 to ZANU-PF. Because of widespread intimidation and the likelihood of ballot stuffing and vote rigging, the MDC is contesting 28 of the seats it lost. It won all the cities and all rural areas except those in the president's Shona-speaking heartland. Four of its winners were whites, elected overwhelmingly by blacks despite Mugabe's racist campaign.

Morgan Tsvangirai, president of the MDC, smiled in his office, remembering how voters severely rebuked Mugabe's economic and political follies. Mr. Tsvangirai knows how to begin to fix Zimbabwe's woes: Let the country's currency devalue (to help farmers and other exporters); restore law and order to the farming sector by ousting interlopers; bring the country's 13,000 troops home from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and end the leader-led corruption.

In contrast, Mugabe remains silent and invasions of the white-owned farms continue illegally. Mugabe is also reluctant to pull his Army out of the Congo, where diamonds and cobalt are enriching his own personal wealth. Senior members of ZANU-PF want their president to resign, but fear his wrath.

Zimbabwe's once rich economy has endured a precipitous meltdown since 1998. Inflation has raced upward from 20 to 80 percent. Government deficits are now as high as 20 percent of GDP, while yearly GDP itself has tumbled from $600 to $400 per capita. GDP growth rates have slumped from 5 percent a year to a predicted minus 10 percent this year. The local dollar has fallen in value from 8 per $1US to 60 .

Zimbabwe is bankrupt. Consequently, its state petroleum monopoly has difficulty importing fuel for cars and tractors, and people stand in long lines, desperate for kerosene and cooking oil. The state-owned electricity utility has no money to import power, and at any time the country may go dark. Because Zimbabwe has no foreign exchange, and farmers can make no money on their crops, food shortages are beginning to appear. They could become serious by September if winter wheat isn't sown now.

In better-managed times, Zimbabwe boasted one of the best-balanced and well-functioning economies in Africa. But this healthy growth has been undermined by direct government action since 1998. By hiring rent-a-thugs to invade white-owned farms - and in some cases kill white farmers who favored the MDC - the government quickly destroyed the equivalent of 20 percent of GDP. Even worse, Mugabe threatened to confiscate all white-owned farms without compensation. He also vowed to nationalize the mines. Foreign investors withdrew in fear and dismay.

Unless Mugabe alters course significantly, emergency assistance from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, much less Western donors, will not be forthcoming. That help will only arrive when Zimbabwe begins to put its own house in order.

Local businessmen suspect that it is too late. If they are right, then this well-educated and once well-run country could become the next Sierra Leone or Congo. Recovery is possible, but only if Mugabe resigns before his term ends in 2002, or refrains from new acts of venality.

*Robert I. Rotberg is director of the Kennedy School's program on intrastate conflict and president of the World Peace Foundation.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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