Fiddling while Zimbabwe burns

Secretary of State Colin Powell last month urged Zimbabwe's autocratic president, Robert Mugabe, to "submit to the law and the will of the people." Mr. Powell's unprecedented condemnation of President Mugabe in a speech in Johannesburg was on target. It was clearly delivered with the support of South Africa, agitated as that nation has been by the political and economic chaos to its north.

But, as my own recent visit to Zimbabwe revealed, the abyss into which Mugabe has plunged the previously prosperous and peaceful country is far deeper than even Powell and South African President Thabo Mbeki may suspect. Mugabe has always used terror to frighten the opposition and strengthen his own political position. This time, however, his country has crumbled first.

The fact that Zimbabwe's economic growth has plunged backward by at least 10 percent in a year is visible both in the cities and in the bush. I walked past dozens of once-flourishing stores in city arcades, now shut. Whole city-center and suburban malls echo with emptiness. The proud tourist hotels at the Victoria Falls are either closed or valiantly catering to handfuls instead of thousands of tourists.

In recent months, Zimbabwe's economic meltdown has been exacerbated by the invasions of factories and other productive enterprises in the country's main cities, and the takeover of rural hotels and plantations. The perpetrators are thuggish young men masquerading as veterans of the local war against whites during the 1970s. Many white and black managers have been assaulted and extorted, and forced to flee the country. Many of the beatings have taken place in the headquarters of Mugabe's ruling party.

Education Minister Herbert Murerwa told me Zimbabwe had "hit bottom." Finally, he said hopefully, Minister of Home Affairs John Nkomo had ordered the police to prosecute the "veterans" who had invaded industries, as they had been illegally occupying farms for a year. On that same day, however, an agitated mob of Mugabe supporters had tried to lynch the country's electoral superviser for letting an opposition candidate defeat a Mugabe loyalist in an urban mayoral contest.

Mr. Nkomo obviously took orders from Mugabe, I suggested to Dr. Murerwa. So why had the president allowed his country's political peace and economic prosperity to be compromised for so long?

"The president is much too busy to deal with matters like that. He leaves it to his ministers," Murerwa said without a flicker of irony. "Nkomo should have acted long ago."

Earlier on the same day, another Mugabe stalwart told me that every time the president or his spin-doctoring minister of information opens his mouths, Zimbabwe falls further into despair. But there was little that could be done to cope with dictatorship from inside the ruling party. Intimidation and spying were rife. Too many party leaders were being blackmailed, and several had recently lost their lives in suspicious "accidents."

There are massive gasoline and diesel shortages in Zimbabwe. Bread and the staple maize flour will soon become hard to find. Last month's official figures show that Zimbabwe will run out of basic grains sometime between June and September. The US and South Africa are discussing how best to provide food relief.

Powell suggested in Johannesburg that the United States and South Africa intended to "put the right kind of political pressure" on Mugabe to quit or promise free and fair presidential elections next year, as scheduled. Washington can cut its remaining aid, as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have done. It can find ways to bolster the financially weak but morally strong Movement for Democratic Change, and it can refuse visas to Mugabe, his associates, and their relatives.

South Africa could always accelerate the existing Zimbabwean crisis by cutting off fuel or power imports into its almost-bankrupt neighbor. But President Mbeki fears chaos if he does so. At least, he could speak out more than he has against Mugabe's behavior. He could start shunning official visitors from Zimbabwe. Isolation would help ring-fence the spread of dangerous developments southward.

All of Southern Africa is at risk. It is reliably estimated that South Africa has already lost upwards of $3 billion in foreign direct investment. Emmigrants are flooding south. But the biggest threat is to democracy in Africa. Powell's criticisms are a good beginning. Perhaps the concerted efforts of Washington and South Africa can persuade Mugabe to stop destroying Zimbabwe and harming Africa.

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 Monitor

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