Backgrounder

PrintPrint EmailEmail ShareShare CiteCite
Style:MLAAPAChicagoClose

loading...

AFRICA: Mugabe's Zimbabwe

Author: Esther Pan
December 19, 2003

What's the current situation in Zimbabwe?

President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's leader since independence in 1980, maintains his grip on power. Under his rule, the country has become an international pariah: its economy has collapsed, white farmers have been driven off their large, commercial farms, and millions of Zimbabweans are suffering from famine, illness, drought, and economic hardship. A flood of Zimbabwean refugees has swamped Southern Africa, threatening regional stability.

Share

What is the state of the economy?

Zimbabwe's gross domestic product (GDP) plummeted 40 percent from 1999 to 2003, and the annual inflation rate rose to 620 percent for the year up to November 2003, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Unemployment hovers near 80 percent. "The economic situation continues to decline very rapidly," says Princeton N. Lyman, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow in Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

When did the economy start to deteriorate?

Experts say that in the last 10 years, Mugabe has transformed Zimbabwe from a prosperous agricultural producer to a country wracked by corruption, political conflict, and economic upheaval. Half of Zimbabwe's 12.5 million people currently depend on food aid to survive. Mugabe's controversial program of forced land redistribution--commercial farms were seized from white farmers, the country's major landowners from colonial times, and turned over to blacks--sent the economy into a tailspin.

Why did land redistribution damage the economy?

Much of the land went to Mugabe cronies, government officials, or people with no farming experience. Food production crashed. Extensive corruption and the arbitrary nature of the land redistribution, combined with other expressions of Mugabe's increasingly repressive rule, scared off foreign investors.

Why did Mugabe pursue land redistribution?

To hold onto power, according to Africa experts, who say that is Mugabe's only remaining goal. Taking land from the small white minority that controlled most of Zimbabwe's richest farmland won widespread approval from the country's black majority. "In Zimbabwe, and only because of the color line arising from British colonialism, 70 percent of the best arable land is owned by less than 1 percent of the population who happen to be white, while the black majority are congested on barren land. We have sought to redress this inequity through a land reform and resettlement program" that will result in "economic and social justice and [adhere to] our constitution and laws," Mugabe said in a speech to the United Nations Millennium Summit on September 8, 2000.

What are Mugabe's goals for the land program?

To appease a restive population and fine-tune his exit strategy, experts say. "If Mugabe has a long-term plan, it's not about his country. It's about how he gets to a safe, secure retirement with an ample income," says Chester A. Crocker, distinguished professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University and former assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Many experts say that Mugabe, isolated and increasingly paranoid, has a tenuous grip on reality. "It's hard to deal rationally with an irrational person," Lyman says. "Hopefully, he's the last of a dying breed."

How does Mugabe exercise power?

Through his ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). It organized the farm seizures and encouraged armed bands to force out white farmers, experts say. ZANU-PF authorities have also consistently harassed, intimidated, and used violence against journalists, critics, and members of Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), experts say. In March 2002, Mugabe extended his hold on power by winning an election, widely viewed as rigged, that was marred by voter intimidation and violence.

Have foreign governments voiced concern about Zimbabwe?

Yes. The United States and the European Union have imposed visa bans on Zimbabwe's leaders, frozen their overseas assets, and halted official assistance to Mugabe's government. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a New York Times op-ed on June 24, 2003, wrote that "President Mugabe and his Politburo colleagues have an absolute monopoly of coercive power, but no legitimacy or moral authority." He pledged increased U.S. assistance to Zimbabwe only "with the president gone." The Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe last year to protest human rights abuses during the run-up to the March 2002 election. A recent meeting of Commonwealth heads of state in Abuja, Nigeria, decided to extend indefinitely Zimbabwe's suspension from the group. In response, Zimbabwe announced on December 7 that it would quit the Commonwealth.

Was the Commonwealth decision to extend the suspension unanimous?

No. Several African countries argued for Zimbabwe's reinstatement, a move British Prime Minister Tony Blair called "defending the indefensible." But recent developments in Zimbabwe--increased farm seizures, expulsion of foreign aid agencies, and violent suppression of dissent, among other events--helped Commonwealth members resist those appeals.

What's the Commonwealth?

A voluntary association of 54 states, mostly former members of Britain's colonial empire, that pursue common goals like fostering democracy, human rights, and sustainable development around the world. Its member countries represent nearly a third of the world's population. The Economist magazine described the group as "the most important global organization that the United States does not dominate."

What has the Commonwealth tried to do about Zimbabwe?

Like other international organizations, it had expressed its dismay about the March 2002 election results and the heavy-handed policies of Mugabe's government. Human Rights Watch has accused the Zimbabwean Army and police of violating protestors' human rights and withholding food aid from government opponents. The Commonwealth had two groups working on the Zimbabwe problem: a high-level delegation of heads of state and a six-nation committee charged with suggesting ways to improve the political situation in Zimbabwe. The committee, made up of South Africa, Australia, Canada, India, Jamaica, and Mozambique, recommended that Zimbabwe repeal legislation that limits the freedoms of speech, press and free assembly, end the harassment of opposition and civil society groups, and cooperate with Commonwealth observer teams. None of these steps have been taken.

How long can Zimbabwe function under current conditions?

Indefinitely, experts say. International food aid is fending off starvation, experts say, and the departure of millions of Zimbabweans has reduced the ranks of malcontents and the demand for scarce resources. "I think it's going to go on until Mugabe leaves or dies," Lyman says.

What international aid is Zimbabwe receiving?

The United Nations World Food Program distributes food aid, while resisting government attempts to use food to reward supporters and punish foes, experts say. On December 3, the IMF, Zimbabwe's most important source of development funding, announced that it is beginning disciplinary "compulsory withdrawal" procedures against Zimbabwe, a strong and rarely applied form of censure that could eventually lead to the country's expulsion from the IMF. "Zimbabwe has not cooperated with the fund," says Doris Ross, division chief of the IMF's Africa department. It has "not pursued economic policies to reverse the [country's] economic decline." Zimbabwe also owes the IMF $273 million for aid and loans made to the country under the IMF's poverty reduction program; it has not made any payments on its arrears since June 2003.

What are the origins of the land problem in Zimbabwe?

The area now known as Zimbabwe was claimed by Cecil Rhodes for the British Empire in 1888; he named it Rhodesia after himself. It was administered by Rhodes' British South Africa Company from 1895 to 1923. The company attracted white settlers by offering them thousands of acres of farmland and gold claims in Mashonaland, historically home to the African Mashona tribe. Similar concessions and armed expansion settled whites in neighboring Matabeleland, home to the Ndebele tribe. The primarily English settlers joined Afrikaners from South Africa and Portuguese from Mozambique to impose white-minority rule in Rhodesia. In 1923, the colony's white settlers rejected an offer to be incorporated into South Africa, becoming instead a self-governing colony of the United Kingdom.

When did it become independent?

The process began in 1965, when Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. After a protracted guerrilla war between Smith's government and black groups fighting for independence, the 1979 Lancaster House agreement paved the way for Rhodesia's transformation into a majority-ruled country that was renamed Zimbabwe. The country gained independence in 1980, when the first democratic elections brought Mugabe to power in a coalition government. Mugabe vowed to give white-owned land to blacks. Yet in 2000, some 4,500 white farmers still owned 70 percent of the country's farmland.

Have there been attempts to redistribute farm land more equitably?

Yes. The Lancaster House agreement stipulated that the new Zimbabwe government could buy white-owned land, but only from "willing sellers." Britain offered £44 million to the new government for land resettlement projects; critics say much of the money and land went to Mugabe and his cronies instead of the poor. Other international donors have stopped funding government land reform for fear of similar outcomes.

What happened to British attempts to fund land reform?

The "willing sellers" clause of the Lancaster House agreement expired after 10 years. In 1989, Mugabe's government passed a law giving it the power to make compulsory purchases of land from white owners. In 1997, Mugabe released a "hit list" of 1,500 white-owned farms set for compulsory acquisition. He said Britain, instead of his government, should compensate the farmers because the land was originally stolen from black farmers by Rhodesian settlers.

When did the recent wave of farm seizures start?

In March 2000, groups of armed ZANU-PF supporters and so-called war veterans--many of whom were too young to have fought in the war for independence--began forcibly occupying white-owned farms and driving off white farmers. Several farmers were killed.

How many farms have been taken over?

In the last three years, nearly 3,000 white farms have been "reclaimed" under a new law that says farmers must leave their homes and land before receiving compensation. A few hundred farmers have been paid for their farms, but only in devalued Zimbabwe dollars. Others have refused to leave. Zimbabwe courts ruled several times that the land reform process was unconstitutional under a provision of the Lancaster House agreement, enshrined in the constitution, that said farmers must be compensated for their land. However, an April 6, 2000 amendment to the Zimbabwe constitution shifted the responsibility for compensating white farmers from Zimbabwe to Britain, the former colonial power. Britain claims that it has already honored its obligations with payments made under the framework of the Lancaster House agreement.

How have the farm seizures affected Zimbabwe's agricultural production?

Agricultural production, which once accounted for a fifth of Zimbabwe's GDP, has crashed. Of the approximately 4,500 white commercial farmers in 2000, only 600 are still actively farming their land, reports the Commercial Farmers' Union. Seventy percent of black farm workers, or some 2 million people, have lost their jobs. BBC News Online reports that sales of tobacco, one of Zimbabwe's major crops, have fallen from 240 million kilograms in 2000 to 80 million kilograms in 2003, with forecasts for 2004 as low as 40 million kilograms. Four years ago Zimbabwe was a net exporter of maize and supplied the World Food Program; this year, experts say the country will produce 784,000 tons, less than half the country's own demand of 2 million tons. The national cattle herd has dropped from 1.2 million cows to only 200,000. Many redistributed farms lie fallow because the new owners lack the equipment, seed, or tools to produce crops.

How has the agricultural crisis affected Zimbabwe's economy?

Crop failures have left little to export, and experts say the failing economy has devastated the country's mining and manufacturing industries. As a result, Zimbabwe is earning very little hard currency. The foreign exchange shortage is so severe that Zimbabwean police have reportedly been confiscating dollars, euros, and South African rands from international visitors to game parks and landmarks like Victoria Falls.

Does Zimbabwe have an AIDS problem?

Yes. The country has one of the world's highest rates of HIV/AIDS, with some 25 percent of the country's population infected, according to government figures. The World Health Organization and UNAIDS estimate that 33.7 of the country's population of 15 to 49 year olds is infected.

Who is Robert Mugabe?

Mugabe, 79, was a leader of the armed fight against white rule in then-Rhodesia in the 1960s and 70s. He led guerrilla forces from the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and his own party, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) in a long and bloody campaign against the Rhodesian government. After the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement, Mugabe came to power in a coalition government with ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo in 1980. Two years later, Mugabe accused Nkomo and his followers of plotting to overthrow the government after police found arms caches on ZAPU property. Nkomo and his aides were expelled from the government. Mugabe has led Zimbabwe since.

Is Mugabe entirely isolated?

No. There is support for Mugabe from African countries, especially neighboring South Africa. President Thabo Mbeki is one of Mugabe's most vocal supporters. South African election monitors were among the only international observers to declare the 2002 Zimbabwe election free and fair.

Why do they support him?

Experts say that for all the trouble he has caused, Mugabe still commands respect in Africa for his role in his country's fight for majority rule. Land reform resonates across southern Africa, and many black Africans--and their leaders--are sympathetic to the aims of Mugabe's land policy, even if they object to its execution. Some experts also say that many African leaders, who themselves fought against colonial powers and represent their countries' ruling parties, are wary of opposition parties like Zimbabwe's MDC. "They don't want the precedent to be set that an opposition party could displace them at the polls," says Crocker.

How is Zimbabwe's crisis affecting South Africa?

Zimbabwe's turmoil has hurt South Africa's economy: its credit rating has suffered, and foreign direct investment has fallen over fears that Zimbabwe-style land seizures could occur in South Africa. International investors, wary of Mbeki's support for Mugabe, question Mbeki's commitment to democracy and the rule of law, some experts say. In a December 13 letterto the African National Congress, Mbeki defended Mugabe's farm program, saying that forced resettlement had become inevitable because Britain had not honored its commitment to fund land reform in Zimbabwe.

Both countries are members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional trade and development bloc whose stability is threatened by Zimbabwe's problems. The crisis in their homeland has spurred thousands of Zimbabwean refugees to flood into South Africa. The South African government is having a difficult time catching and deporting them, and out-of-work South Africans claim Zimbabweans are stealing scarce jobs.

What is the solution to Zimbabwe's crisis?

Experts have talked for years about an Africa-brokered deal that would allow Mugabe to save face and quietly step down. "He really wants to salvage his reputation, but he doesn't know how," says Crocker. Under the terms of such a deal, Mugabe would go into exile somewhere in Africa, possibly even within Zimbabwe. In return, Mugabe would be guaranteed a safe retirement, access to funds, and immunity from prosecution--a deal similar to that worked out by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to allow Liberia's Charles Taylor to step down in August and go into exile in Nigeria. (Taylor is under indictment for war crimes by a United Nations tribunal but is beyond its reach as long as he remains in Nigeria.) A government of national unity would then be created to manage Zimbabwe until free and fair elections could be held.

What can the international community do about the crisis in Zimbabwe?

"Not much," says Lyman. "There's no international leverage. Some leaders are very sensitive to international pressure; Mugabe could care less." The IMF's Ross points out, however, that international organizations have said they will work with Zimbabwe again if and when a responsible leadership emerges. "We're willing to work with any leadership that follows sensible economic policies," Ross says.