A version of this post appeared on the Africa and Asia site. The views expressed are the author's own.
President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, an audacious autocrat, is entering his ninth decade. As avaricious and assertive as ever, he has ruled his singular southern African country for 34 years. Despite preying relentlessly on the people of the country, since 2000 he and his governing Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) unexpectedly have won six bitterly contested parliamentary and presidential elections, the most recent in July 2013.
A querulous democrat, Mugabe declares invulnerability and revels in his own version of omnipotence.
But what has the Mugabe regime really accomplished during more than three decades in power?
First, he has presided in recent years over the exodus of nearly one-quarter of the nation’s people. A full three million Zimbabweans have voted with their feet and removed themselves with difficulty and disarray to South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, and Botswana.
Britain is now, as another example, the home of the majority of Zimbabwe’s trained midwives and nurses.
When I dined recently at a classy restaurant in Cape Town, our party was served expertly by a very well-spoken Zimbabwean. He had once been a primary school teacher in a town near Mugabe’s own birth place. The waiter left his family behind, but sends back regular remittances – a steady and oft-repeated tale heard among those in the enforced Zimbabwean diaspora.
Second, Mugabe compelled his citizens to endure three years (2006-2009) of Weimar-like inflation (500 million percent per year at its peak). That was before a sensible opposition finance minister (installed in office during the so-called and mislabeled Government of National Unity (GNU) interregnum from 2009 to 2013) junked the Zimbabwe dollar and made the US dollar, the South African rand, and the British pound legal currency.
Now the Chinese yuan, the Japanese yen, the Australian dollar, and the Botswanan pula are also approved tender.
But, in 2014, as the US dollar has strengthened against the rand and other currencies, Mugabe’s minions may want to revert to printing a local dollar. That is the best way to arbitrage currency accounts to favor insiders, a patrimonial tactic that Mugabe and his men employed to profit themselves during the inflationary years. They may soon begin to do so again as greed starts to outrun ordinary sense.
Third, nowadays there is the gift of deflation. In the post-July, post-GNU, ZANU-PF era in which Zimbabwe now finds itself, the economy is slowly but steadily collapsing. Banks are finding it increasingly difficult to pay their depositors. Big businesses that have long existed in the country are closing their doors. Most Western foreign investors, who hoped for a different election result in July, are now turning their backs on potential platinum mining and other ventures.
The economic meltdown has been influenced by the Mugabe administration’s decision to continue its questionable attempt to obtain 51 percent of most foreign and domestic white-owned concerns. It also follows a major move against Zimbabwe’s major foreign-owned, globally-competitive sugar producer. These moves also include the harassing of existing platinum mining companies, a renewed decision to force gold miners to sell to the state rather than on the world market, and the government’s inability to meet International Monetary Fund and World Bank conditions for financial assistance.
Fourth, jobs have vanished along with the exodus of skilled and well-educated Zimbabweans (like my waiter in Cape Town). At least 80 percent of adult Zimbabweans are unemployed in the formal sector and no one really knows what is happening along the informal margins of society. Poverty is everywhere. Crime is cascading.
Fifth, Mugabe has successfully spread sleaze throughout his once vigorous, but now weakened domain. That means no well-placed cabinet minister suffers the effects of deflation. Moreover, in the past six weeks Zimbabweans have discovered that technocratic, Mugabe-appointed, directors of statutory boards (parastatals) such as the medical aid society, the rural electricity administration, and Air Zimbabwe -- have paid themselves huge monthly salaries to run organizations that are otherwise wildly bankrupt and providing almost no public services.
Others, so the local press reports, take bribes from foreigners to try to gain a foothold in the lucrative diamond exporting business.
A Zimbabwean commentator wryly wrote: “What has shocked many Zimbabweans is the extent to which public servants are helping themselves to state coffers in a manner that is not only abhorrent and immoral but also revealing about the true nature of the neo-patrimonial empire that ZANU-PF has built over the last thirty-four years.”
In late February millions were spent celebrating Mugabe’s birthday. This month more millions were spent when Mugabe’s Hong Kong-educated daughter was married in an impressive national ceremony at state expense. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's basic services are collapsing.
Sixth, diamonds were discovered on Mugabe’s watch, mostly in the Marange district in eastern Zimbabwe. After De Beers abandoned the discovery, a British company developed the claim and, just as it was finding good paying stones, Mugabe and his cronies pushed the firm and 40,000 artisanal miners off the Marange grounds. It has since been kept as a Mugabean bonanza, largely exploited in cahoots with a Chinese company and a mysterious South African concern.Grace, Mugabe’s wife, holds one diamond concession. Influential Emmerson Mnangagwa, now minister of justice, holds another. Among those enjoying spoils include principals in the Central Intelligence Organization, and the chief of the defense forces.
Mugabe’s electoral victory in July, in fact, was greatly facilitated by diamond revenues, few of which then (or even now) flow as royalties to the national treasury.
Seventh, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, once the prosperous bread basket of southern Africa, is again desperately short of home-grown maize and other food staples. Fully 10 percent of the remaining Zimbabweans are kept from starving on a consistent basis by handouts provided by the World Food Program.
Virginia tobacco, once the country’s primary agricultural export earner, is moribund following the destruction of the white-owned farming sector (where up to 500,000 Africans were once employed).
Eighth, Mugabe’s nation is dramatically short of electrical power. In the GNU government, the opposition minister of power managed to restart some of the Kariba generating facilities and to tap thermal power stations and the southern African power grid for more supplies. But Mugabe’s current appointee has appropriated himself a big salary increase without giving the country’s major cities (forget the towns and rural areas) steady supplies of power. Load-shedding is common; some areas of Harare are lucky if they receive a few hours of electric power per day.
Clean water is also a major problem, especially in the big cities. Without funds to repair old pipes or to chlorinate, residents of Harare rely on their own boreholes or boil water to keep it safe. One senior colleague tells me that he and his family have not had showers available in their house for many years; they go to friends who have more reliable sources of water.
Schools and hospitals that had been recovering under the GNU administration are once again providing lamentable services. Mugabe travels to Singapore for medical treatment while most Zimbabweans have little access to modern medicine. The most basic supplies are scarce.
School teachers, to mention a different sector, are no longer paid -- so they teach infrequently and use outdated textbooks, if any exist.
Ninth. Mugabe does have reliable official Chinese partners. They help supply his security forces with the requisite hardware, provide military uniforms, give jet fighters, and have constructed an intelligence headquarters. They are investing in a solar power venture (and Indians may be investing in a steel plant) and have leased agricultural land. And all they want, in return, are diamonds, platinum, copper, and other minerals, along with ferrochrome alloys.
Tenth. As the July 2013 election demonstrated, Mugabe at 90 still outwits his opponents. He knows when to compromise opponents by helping them to big houses, big motor cars, jobs, and other perquisites of the good life. He knows how to entrap his closest supporters in webs of corrupt practice and privilege. If anyone even within his own party decides to cross him, or to become too independent, he often manages literally to cut them down.
Sometimes, as in the case of Edward Chinori-Chininga, ZANU-PF chair of Parliament’s mining and energy committee in 2013, they lose their lives in unexpected and inexplicable road accidents. Frequently, they simply vanish.
South African Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma both told top South African executives and Western leaders such as President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Prime Minister Tony Blair that they would be able to neutralize and modernize Mugabe.
But instead they let him run roughshod over his captive nation. Western sanctions have hardly worked to lessen that grip. As long as he continues, it appears, Zimbabwe will slide backwards, the country’s poor will become poorer, more citizens will flee, and conditions inside the country will become even more brutish than they already are.
A better Zimbabwe may emerge when Mugabe leaves the scene. There may also be nights of long knives when supporters of Mr. Mnangagwa and backers of Vice President Joice Mujuru vie for supremacy. Then, when there is mayhem, South Africa could come to its senses and find it necessary to restore order and stability. Or there may be a Ukrainian scenario.
Whatever happens, Mugabe will have the last tragic laugh. “I took an exceptionally good and prosperous country,” he and his imaginary ghost might say, "and then I wantonly destroyed it, piece by piece, with only Botswana, and never South Africa, lifting a finger to curb my worst instincts."