Africa's bread basket raided

Two decades of President Mugabe's rule has pushed Zimbabwe to the brink of starvation

Zimbabwe's Robert Gabriel Mugabe is Africa's Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein combined. For more than 22 years, as Martin Meredith's chilling book details, a ruthless Mugabe in pursuit of absolute power has wantonly killed thousands of his own people.

Today, he is depriving millions of food aid and giving boastful speeches while systematically destroying his country's economy.

That sounds exaggerated. But, since 1998, and especially since losing a referendum vote in 2000, Mugabe has orchestrated fatal attacks on the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and anyone thought to be sympathetic to them. More than 100 parliamentary candidates, poll workers, and white and black persons alleged to be helping the MDC have been brutally murdered.

Mugabe's atmosphere of outright mayhem began in the run-up to the parliamentary elections of 2000 (which Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front narrowly won amid widespread allegations of fraud) and continued steadily through the presidential elections in March 2002, which Mugabe brazenly stole.

Mugabe physically harassed Morgan Tsvangirai, his MDC opponent, and his campaigning team in 2002, used thugs and soldiers to intimidate voters, stuffed ballot boxes in key constituencies, and rigged the count – all according to European and some African observers.

In chapter after chapter, Meredith, a British journalist who has written widely about Africa, reveals the depths of Mugabe's determination and his wildly unprincipled venality.

In the earliest phase of Mugabe's presidency, during the 1980s, he unleashed a series of massacres against defenseless civilians, the Ndebele and Kalanga ethnic groups, in southwest Zimbabwe, presumed followers of Joshua Nkomo, Mugabe's long-time rival.

In order to teach Mr. Nkomo and his Zimbabwe African People's Union followers who was boss, Mugabe sent a North Korean-trained battalion on a rampage throughout rural areas near Bulawayo. More than 20,000 Zimbabweans were thus exterminated by the special battalion between 1982 and 1985.

For the succeeding decade, Mugabe's killing fields were far more selective: some potential dissidents in his own party, followers of some of his rivals, and, indeed, anyone who thought to challenge his reign.

Mugabe's regime was always corrupt, but, as Meredith discusses at length, its greed swelled in the late 1990s and continues unabated. The motivating source of this family avarice is popularly ascribed to the ambitions of Grace, the president's much younger second wife and mother of his only living children. Meredith contrasts her lack of sophistication to the poise and common sense of Sally, Mugabe's Ghanaian first wife, who was a check on the president before she died in 1992.

Extreme corruption would be less disruptive if Zimbabwe were prospering. Instead, as Mugabe and his family and friends have made illicit millions (from exploiting minerals in the Congo as well as from all the usual fiddles), so ordinary Zimbabweans have descended into penury.

Thanks to Mugabe's bashing of white farmers (employers of nearly 1 million farm workers) and the consequent ruination of the nation's commercial agriculture, his attacks on industry, his squandering of foreign exchange, his political chicanery, and his country's military foray into the Congo, Zimbabwe's annual per-capita gross domestic product has fallen by 10 percent for three successive years. Eighty percent of Zimbabweans are impoverished, according to official statistics. Sixty percent are unemployed. Mugabe has caused massive shortages of maize, wheat, cooking oil, and sugar. About 6 million (out of a national population of 13 million) are now at risk of starvation, despite US and UN World Food Program efforts.

Meredith's fluent narrative effectively conveys the depths of Mugabe's depravity and Zimbabwe's consequent misery. He sketches Mugabe's formative years as a self-contained Jesuit-trained teacher, as a political neophyte, as a political prisoner in Rhodesia, and finally as a man capable of bulldozing anyone and any obstacle in the way of his complete authority. He called himself a Marxist, but that was a convenient cover for increasingly autocratic behavior.

Meredith's book unfortunately ends well before the 2002 election, so his gruesome tale is inconclusive. His tale is also studded with numerous informative quotations, but none is sourced. Authenticity has been sacrificed to pace and flow. But the major problem with this otherwise engaging account is that Meredith fails to help readers understand why Mugabe behaves so irrationally.

Why did Mugabe become a monster when his first presidential gestures to whites were warm and conciliatory? Why did he unnecessarily attack Nkomo's largely passive partisans? Why, in the contemporary era, is he continuing to destroy his own fatted calf? Why, at 78, is he not content to retire and enjoy his spoils rather than unleashing upon himself the wrath of nations, as well as the disgust of his own citizens? Solving such compelling leadership failures awaits a deeper analysis.

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

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