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A cry against the Pol Pot of Africa

By Robert I. Rotberg / May 3, 2002



CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

Africa has its very own Pol Pot. Everything that President Robert Mugabe has done to Zimbabwe since the stolen March elections qualifies him for that despicable allusion. Even Mr. Mugabe finally acknowledged last week that more than 7 million Zimbabweans, including 5 million children, were at risk of starvation.

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What he did not say was that he and his administration are directly responsible for the wave of acute hunger, and for the chaos that is continuing to destroy a once- rich nation. Like Cambodia's vicious Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge chief, Mugabe has not seemed to care that Zimbabwe is sliding rapidly from weakness to failure, that the tide of human misery is eroding the very foundations of the state (as in Cambodia), and that new outrages occur daily.

Although Mugabe promised fellow African presidents that he would mend his ways, since the mid-March poll his regime has systematically punished opponents. Thousands of white- and black-owned farms have been confiscated without legal proceedings; nearly all are being grabbed at gunpoint, their owners (and workers) being forced to run for their lives.

Last month, too, Mugabe's militants started threatening Asian factory and store owners, telling them they would be "next." The law of the jungle now prevails in Zimbabwe.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) fielded about 1,100 poll watchers in March. Already, 400 of the 1,100 have had their houses burned to the ground by Mugabe's henchmen. Zimbabwe human-rights organizations report that nearly 100 MDC candidates and operatives have been killed since March by government-backed hooligans; independent newspaper editors and journalists have been questioned and arrested; and new laws curtailing media criticism have been enacted. A leading American critic has been deported.

The purpose of the regime's renewed attacks on the commercial farming community is to punish probable supporters of the MDC, to turn productive properties over to black supporters of Mugabe as spoils of war, and to spread terror.

Few, if any, of these farms are being transferred to landless peasants or farmworkers. As a result, Mugabe's land-focused pogrom has destroyed food production, dried up investment, greatly reduced the planting of new crops, and created food shortages for years to come.

None of this is rational or necessary. Undercutting a once-prosperous country's main source of wealth is purely vindictive. Indeed, severe maize shortfalls were predicted at least eight months ago, but the government ignored the warnings and even exported stockpiled maize for cash. Mugabe seems to relish his opponents' discomfort. That is the Pol Pot in him coming out.

Mugabe has good reason to believe he can do what he wants. Although the British Commonwealth, the European Union, individual European nations, Senegal, and the United States refused to recognize the election results, condemned his theft, and imposed sanctions, many African nations accepted the faked count. South Africa, the regional power and Zimbabwe's neighbor, has refused to condemn Mugabe's actions.

Independent analysts have demonstrated that the margin of Mugabe's victory was almost certainly provided by padded counts and dubious votes. Yet South Africa and other Africans have done nothing to restore democratic practice and sound economics to a Zimbabwe, where inflation is at 116 percent, the local dollar is valueless, unemployment has reached 80 percent, and the shelves are bare.

ZIMBABWE now needs 700,000 tons of maize. The World Food Program, the US, and other donors have been prepared for six months to supply maize, but Mugabe has often found procedural reasons to slow the aid. Or he has wanted to use food as a weapon, denying it to MDC supporters.

Only renewed pressure on South Africa, which has the power to act, can save the people of Zimbabwe from the fate of their Cambodian cousins.

• Robert I. Rotberg directs Harvard's Program on Intrastate Conflict and is president of the World Peace Foundation.

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