When Zimbabwe became an independent country in 1980, it was a focal point for international optimism about Africa’s future. Today, Zimbabwe is a basket case of a country. Over the past decade, the refusal of President Robert Mugabe and his ruling party to tolerate challenges to their power has led them to systematically dismantle the most effective workings of Zimbabwe’s economic and political systems, replacing these with structures of corruption, blatant patronage and repression. The resulting 80 percent unemployment rate, hyperinflation, and severe food, fuel and power shortages have created a national climate of desperation. Estimates suggest that roughly one-quarter of the entire population has fled the country. Meanwhile, the government’s violent crackdown on voices of dissent has left the opposition divided and eroded public confidence in the prospects of peaceful political change.
The human rights and humanitarian consequences of these developments have attracted the attention of the United States and others in the international community, as has the potential of the crisis to add Zimbabwe to the roster of the world’s dangerously unstable failed states. But years of Western condemnation and targeted sanctions have done little to alter the course or speed of Zimbabwe’s decline. The cyclical crackdowns on opposition figures, the anti-climatic regional negotiations, and the ever-shrinking economic figures tend to merge into a drumbeat of hopelessness, and a real danger exists that policymakers fatigued and distracted by other crises will lose enthusiasm for playing an engaged and constructive role in southern Africa’s most alarming political crisis.
While it makes sense to keep the pressure on the regime, the United States cannot compel President Mugabe and his loyalists to step aside. Zimbabweans themselves will ultimately decide, though other Southern African states may well influence, how and when political change will come.
But, as I argue in a new Council Special Report, Planning for Post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, the U.S., working with others, can help to alter the calculus of the Zimbabwean players who can affect change — at least those players who are not 83 years old and determined to tank their country in a fit of pique. By focusing on the future and putting a serious commitment to Zimbabwe’s recovery on the table, we might be able to influence the present.
This means working closely with others in the international community to map out strategies that will help bring essential services back on line and get the economy back on track. It also requires building consensus around governance-related conditions that must be met to set those plans in motion, like respect for basic human rights, an end to the political manipulation of food aid, and amendment or repeal of repressive laws. Finally, this requires marshalling real resources in an international trust fund for Zimbabwe’s recovery — resources that can serve as powerful incentives for potential successors to Mugabe to embrace vital reforms.
A clear plan to link robust recovery assistance to better governance can help Zimbabweans interested in charting a new course to plan their strategy by making it clear just how the spigots of international support can be turned back on. This approach will open up space for a new diplomatic discourse about Zimbabwe’s potentially prosperous future, rather than simply the prickly present. Such a plan would also lay the groundwork for a sound reconstruction investment, because just as bad governance led to today’s economic catastrophe, sound governance will make or break recovery.
The United States can also seize on the opportunity presented by change in Zimbabwe to enter a new phase of cooperation with Southern Africa, and particularly with South Africa — a country where the U.S. has quite a lot at stake. By engaging in detailed consultations with Southern Africans now and by linking a commitment to Zimbabwe’s recovery with a commitment to regional infrastructure investments like improving southern Africa’s rail links, the U.S. may be able to remove Zimbabwe from the list of irritants in the U.S.-South African bilateral relationship to the list of issues on which the United States and South Africa are genuinely invested in each other’s success.
Zimbabwe, with its powerful history of race-based oppression, tremendous human capital, and compelling roster of patriots who have worked tirelessly and at great personal risk to resist oppression, could be as inspiring tomorrow as it is depressing today. To be effective in helping to turn the country around, the U.S. must work with others in the international community rather than going it alone, and must be willing to commit meaningful resources to the country. That’s a tall diplomatic order, and it will take a committed team of senior leaders in Washington working with energized diplomats on the ground and a Congress willing to invest in Zimbabwe’s future to fill it.
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