Mugabe embarks on rebuilding

South African President Thabo Mbeki travels to Harare today to discuss his election observers' report.

Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, was hastily sworn in Sunday in a small ceremony less than a week after he declared victory in an election most observers say was rigged.

Mr. Mugabe's tenuous claim to the presidency was evident even in his rushed and modest inauguration. He has typically favored huge stadium-style events with cheering crowds and lines of foreign dignitaries. This year, the inauguration was moved forward by almost two weeks and was open only to invited guests. Conspicuously absent from the ceremony were Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) parliamentarians, who boycotted the event.

Mr. Mugabe's first public address since the controversial election last weekend was an odd mixture of the fiery, anti-Western rhetoric of his campaign and calls for reconciliation and rebuilding. In one sentence, he called for the opposition MDC to work with his ruling ZANU-PF in Parliament; in the next, he pledged to purge the civil service of opposition supporters.

The centerpiece of Mr. Mugabe's speech, however, was a pledge to fix the country's economy, which is suffering from massive inflation, food shortages, and widespread unemployment. Yet rebuilding Zimbabwe's tattered economy will be difficult without the help of the international community, which is largely skeptical of Mugabe's claim to power. A number of countries, including the United States and Canada, have already said they will offer no more aid to the Southern African country until truly free and fair elections are held.

"What we've got is not an economic problem, it's a political problem," says Tony Hawkins, director of the Graduate School of Management at the University of Zimbabwe. "Until you get the politics right, the economy is not going to get better."

Economists say Zimbabwe will require the help of the international community, particularly Western countries and international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, if it hopes to turn its economy around.

"This situation is not going to get any better without an international bailout of some sort. That means debt relief and IMF funding, among other things," says Mr. Hawkins. "But that's not going to happen under a government the international community sees as illegitimate."

Zimbabwe was once one of the region's most prosperous countries, but in five years has lost more than one-third its annual production. Winding food lines are now a common sight in a country that once fed much of Southern Africa.

But Mugabe seems to be saying that Zimbabweans can repair their economy without international help. "Growth will be restored as investment – by, above all, Zimbabweans themselves – is deliberately and systematically embarked upon in all sectors," Mugabe said Sunday.

Also of concern to economists is Mugabe's apparent resolve to continue his land-reform program. During the election, the 78-year-old leader promised to finish the revolution begun with Zimbabwe's independence by redistributing white-owned commercial farmland to landless blacks.

"Land reform is not merely an exercise in rectifying a monstrous colonial injustice, vital and necessary as that may be," said Mugabe in his inauguration speech. "The resettlement program has also been an opportunity to unleash the sprit of self-reliance and creativity of our people."

In the two years since Mr. Mugabe launched his land program, Zimbabwe's agricultural productivity has fallen by about one-third. A severe drought has contributed to the decline, but economists say the greater problem is that small-scale, subsistence farmers are simply not as productive as the commercial farmers they are replacing.

But after basing his campaign on the promise of land, few think Mugabe can now abandon his land program. The best that can be hoped for, they say, is that the president is forced to accept a new, truly free election.

"The option now facing my president is to be buried in a dishonorable grave or an honorable grave," says Masipula Sithole, professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe. "If Mugabe acts now, at the last minute, and allows free elections, he can still be buried in an honorable grave."

The MDC has so far done nothing to contest the election results, although there has been talk of a national strike. But Professor Sithole believes they may not need to. The current situation, he says, is unsustainable.

"This is one instance where it will come from the bottom up. Nobody will have to call for stay-aways and strikes. The people will spontaneously strike or start food riots. Nobody will call the people to do it," he says.

If, however, Zimbabwe continues on its current path, the consequences are likely to be dire.

"You'll get a situation where it just slides into subsistence level," says Hawkins. "You'll have a breakdown in law and order in the common sense. It will become a real wild-West-type place."

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