A hint of mercy in post-Mugabe Zimbabwe

A new leader offers amnesty to those who return stolen public money. The African country will need many other acts of forgiveness and truth-telling to achieve reconciliation.

People queue to withdraw cash outside a bank in Harare, Zimbabwe, Nov. 28.

Nations coming out of dictatorship or civil war sometimes offer forgiveness to past wrongdoers who fess up. For a torn society, a measure of mercy can often heal quicker than harsh justice. South Africa, Sierra Leone, and Tunisia have tried it. Colombia is in the midst of a truth-and-reconciliation process after its long war. Now it may be Zimbabwe’s turn.

After the end of Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule last week, a new leader offered an unusual and limited pardon on Nov. 28: Those who stole public money and stashed it abroad will be granted amnesty if they return the cash within three months. After that period, said President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the long arm of the law will be visited upon them.

Zimbabweans must come to grips with the troubling aspects of the Mugabe era. Many past wrongs need the bright light of truth and then perhaps some sort of forgiveness.

Mr. Mnangagwa himself is accused of gross human rights violations in the 1980s. He was vice-president under Mugabe but was sidelined and forced to flee the country in early November. After the military eased Mugabe out, Mnangagwa returned and took over.

Mr. Mugabe, despite his age, is being encouraged by religious leaders to admit mistakes. “Zimbabweans are a forgiving lot,” said Bishop Noah Pashapa of the Life and Liberty Church.

The new president’s amnesty move has a very practical purpose. The estimated $2 billion sent abroad by corrupt Zimbabweans might come back and give a needed boost to the economy, which is about half of what it was two decades ago. The country needs cash to build infrastructure for agriculture and mining.

Many countries use amnesties granted in exchange for ill-gotten gains in order to get a quick shot of revenue. They help improve tax compliance, which gives citizens a stake in their government. A one-time forgiveness also sets visible examples of honesty if enough wrongdoers come forward. A recent amnesty in Indonesia netted $367.5 billion that was hidden in offshore accounts. That is equal to about 40 percent of the Indonesian economy.

Mnangagwa’s move hints that he may also be seeking reconciliation with his political opposition. He faces an election next year and, if the process is open and fair, he’ll need to show quick results in reviving the economy. That is easier to do if he can unite the country rather than try to sideline opponents, as both he and Mugabe did in the past. Forgiveness, like that offered to those who have stolen public funds, is a good start in healing Zimbabwe.

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