The Zimbabwe effect

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First up for President-elect George W. Bush and his foreign policy team could be a crisis in Africa.

Wars proceed in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, and the Sudan. Any one of them could rapidly deteriorate.

But it could well be the collapse of Zimbabwe that forces Washington's hand.

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The Bush regime wants as little to do with Africa as possible, but African crises tend to be sudden, violent, and destabilizing. Zimbabwe itself is important, but what makes its future inextricably tied to the new office-holders in Washington is its proximity to and influence on South Africa.

South Africa is the linchpin of Africa. If that nation prospers, there is hope that most of Africa will benefit from its example as well as the export of its know-how and capital.

If South Africa strengthens its democracy under President Thabo Mbeki, there is greater likelihood that democratic practice and good governance will spread northward.

South Africa's crime and corruption are obstacles to its own success.

But the mess in neighboring Zimbabwe is also a sharp brake on South African progress, and therefore on President-elect Bush's apparent desire to shed responsibility for Africa.

As long as South African peace and development are mortgaged by dangers in Zimbabwe, and the nearby wars in Angola and the Congo, Mr. Bush and his aides will be forced to consider what to do if one of these states deteriorates.

Zimbabwe could easily implode. Since 1998, President Robert Mugabe has become increasingly autocratic, erratic, and greedy. In 2000, he lost a national referendum, narrowly won a parliamentary election by intimidating voters and opponents, and single-handedly destroyed Zimbabwe's once-robust economy.

Toward the end of 2000, Mr. Mugabe became increasingly racist in rhetoric and action. First, he sent supposed veteran rent-a-thugs onto white farms to take them by force even though he lost the referendum that would have sanctioned such confiscations.

After narrowly and questionably winning the parliamentary election, he sent more thugs onto more farms to punish whites and Africans for backing opponents to his ZANU-PF movement.

Two dozen white and black farmers and farm-workers were killed.

Then, after the Zimbabwe Supreme Court on three occasions declared Mugabe's actions illegal, and the occupations unlawful, he and his government refused to obey, telling the justices to resign.

Mugabe said that he was above the law. This was not the first time Mugabe defied his own Supreme Court. But, late in 2000, he also defied advice and public rebukes from Mr. Mbeki and from President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria.

He also told a special representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to mind his own business.

As Zimbabwe entered 2001, it was virtually bankrupt. Foreign-exchange reserves were nil. Economic growth per capita had fallen over the year from 2 percent to an unprecedented minus 7 percent.

Very little tax revenue was coming in from big tax-payers, like the commercial farmers, because of their own difficulties.

Inflation had shot up to 80 percent, government deficits were approaching 30 percent of GDP, the local currency against the US dollar had fallen from 4 to 1, to 8 to 1, and every kind of business indicator had plummeted.

Before Christmas, there were long lines for gasoline, cooking oil, and kerosene. Staples like bread were increasingly scarce on store shelves.

Moreover, hospitals lack supplies and cannot pay their staffs. Schools cannot pay their teachers. The bloated civil service hardly operates.

South Africa's currency, in part, has also weakened as a result of Zimbabwe's troubles. Foreign investment dried up significantly and tourism slumped (it has completely vanished in Zimbabwe). South Africa worries that any bloody end to the 20-year-old Mugabe era would be difficult and affect its own stability, particularly if violent street protests or a military coup drove Mugabe out.

Yugoslav-like peoples' uprisings are more likely than a coup. As shortages become more severe, maize meal becomes harder to buy, jobs grow scarcer than ever, gasoline becomes impossible to find, and brownouts turn into power outages, mass antagonism could spill into the streets, leading to the storming of the state house and the final end of the government.

All of Southern Africa could find itself in turmoil.

Sooner than it wishes, the Bush team may be called upon to help the United Nations, South Africa, or Britain prevent widespread bloodshed. It would not be asked to intervene directly, but it will need to be a major player in this situation, as well as in the more obvious problems in Angola, the Congo, Sierra Leone, and Sudan.

That will mean crafting a policy to confront these problems, not least the sustainable rebuilding of collapsed states and the reconstruction of their economies.

To do nothing in the face of a civil war in Zimbabwe, as well as in the other conflicts, would withdraw support for South Africa and consign it and the rest of Africa to poverty, war, flights of refugees, and the impossibility of growth and development.

Instability and dictatorship anywhere are not in the interest of the United States. Cleaning up after tragedies and disasters is also costlier than prevention. So Bush should try to understand how far Zimbabwe has fallen, and then do something about it.

Robert I. Rotberg is director of the Kennedy School's Program on Intrastate Conflict, and president of the World Peace Foundation.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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