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Lyman: Zimbabwe a ‘Terrible Tragedy’ Under Mugabe Rule

Interviewee: Princeton N. Lyman
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 7, 2005

Princeton N. Lyman, the Council on Foreign Relation’s Africa expert, says the March 31 parliamentary elections, widely viewed as fraudulent, are the latest development in Zimbabwe’s “terrible tragedy.” A former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa, Lyman says that Zimbabwe, under the strong-arm rule of President Robert Mugabe, 81, “is declining very rapidly. It was one of the most promising countries in Africa.”

Lyman, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow in Africa policy studies for the Council, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on April 6, 2005.


Can you give us a primer on Zimbabwe and its recent history?

Zimbabwe was one of the first countries in southern Africa to go through the process of ending a kind of apartheid system. In Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia, there was a ruling white minority led by Ian Smith that declared its independence from the British in 1965. That led to a very difficult civil war, which ended under the [British-led] Lancaster House negotiations in 1980 and [was followed by] an election. Robert Mugabe emerged as the leader of the country, whose name was changed to Zimbabwe. He was initially prime minister and, since 1987, president.

The constitution that emerged as part of the compromise between whites and blacks had several features to it. For a short while, whites were guaranteed 20 seats within the parliament; that later was changed. The country had very unequal land distribution. White commercial farmers owned over half the land. So, from the beginning, land reform has been one of the most important issues for Zimbabwe. But over the years, Mugabe flirted with land-reform programs, without following through.

As a result, land reform became an issue every time there was an election. But there was very little movement. In recent years, as Mugabe’s popularity has begun to decline, he moved very aggressively to seize land [farmed by whites]. It led to a gross decline in agricultural output and the beginning of an economic downturn. Now there is a very high unemployment rate, a heavy dependency on food aid, and an important out-migration of many Zimbabweans.

The out-migration is both white and black?

It’s mostly black. A large number of whites have already left.

Which crops are grown in Zimbabwe?

Wheat, tobacco and corn, called maize in Zimbabwe. Tobacco has been the main commercial export crop, but wheat and corn have been the main food staples.

Now they have to import wheat and other foods?

Yes, Zimbabwe needs significant amounts of food aid. That in itself has become controversial because there are accusations that the food is used by the government to reward supporters and punish opponents; if you’re not a supporter, you are denied access to food aid. So there’s a tug-of-war between the government and the international relief agencies on the use of food.

Let’s talk about the parliamentary elections.

Elections are scheduled on a regular basis. Some years back, Robert Mugabe tried to change the constitution to enhance his own power. He put [the change] to a referendum, and he lost the referendum. From that point on, he has moved to strengthen his control over the government. He needs a two-thirds parliamentary majority to change the constitution, and in this election, he will have obtained a two-thirds majority. [His party won] 78 seats in the 120-seat parliament, but the president is authorized to appoint another 30 seats, and that gives him a two-thirds majority.

Was the election fair?

The election itself, that is, on election day, when people were able to go out, and even in the campaigning one or two weeks before the vote, were fairly free and certainly peaceful. But during the run-up to the election, the opposition had very little access to the media, and there was a lot of intimidation in the year leading up to the election. So, on the surface, it looks like a good election, but [Zimbabwe] media bias and emerging questions about vote-counting mar that conclusion.

Both the United States and the British government sharply criticized the election. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a tough statement last week.

She did, saying there were a number of irregularities, particularly the lack of access to media in the run-up to the election and a number of questions. The [U.S.] embassy had a lot of poll-watchers out, and they documented a number of cases where there were questionable practices in the counting and the release of votes and the correlation between early reports of how many people voted and then later reports of winning tallies.

Who is the opposition?

The main opposition party is called Movement for Democratic Change, the MDC, and it largely has two major strengths. It grew out of the labor movement, and its strength is largely in the cities, but also in the southern area where the Ndebele people live.

This election was largely free of violence. In the past, has there been much violence?

In the past, there was a lot of violence, attacks on opposition rallies, arrests. At one point a couple years ago, the head of the MDC was arrested for treason and charged with plotting to kill Mugabe. He was found not guilty, but there has been a lot of harassment of the opposition in the past.

Do you think the election was flawed?

I think, overall, the sad thing is that Zimbabwe is declining very rapidly. It was one of the most promising countries in Africa. It had an excellent infrastructure at the time of its independence; it had a strong agricultural sector; it had a mining sector; it had a reasonably good education system, better than the one in South Africa. It was a strong and very promising African country. And what has happened, particularly in the last six or seven years, is that Mugabe, determined to hold onto power almost until he dies, has destroyed the independence of the judiciary and fired judges that ruled against him. He has destroyed the free press- they have closed down almost all the independent newspapers. He used violence to intimidate the opposition, and has carried out a land reform which has been totally chaotic, and which led to an enormous drop in economic growth and the emigration of perhaps as many as three or four million Zimbabweans. The country itself has declined dramatically in the last few years. It’s a terrible tragedy.

When Mugabe took power in 1980, he was regarded as a charismatic Marxist, wasn’t he?

Yes, he was very strongly Marxist oriented. There was a rivalry within the liberation movement; there were two guerrilla armies. One, led by Robert Mugabe, that was very strongly supported by the Chinese, and the other, led by Joshua Nkomo, that was more or less supported by the Russians. Both had kind of a Marxist orientation. Mugabe emerged as the winner, carried out a very vicious attack on the Ndebele population- thousands of people were killed- and absorbed Nkomo and his party into his own party, and Zimbabwe became, almost until the emergence of the MCD, a one-party state.

He has not carried out a strictly Marxist economic policy. He had for many years an extremely fine economics minister, Bernard Chidzero, who carried out a more-or-less market-oriented economic program that gave room to the commercial farmers and the mining sector. Growth levels in the 1980s to early 1990s were respectable, but lately, Zimbabwe has been a mostly state-run system, both on the political and the economic side. For example, they now demand that the government retain the foreign-exchange earnings in the export sector. That has reduced investment in those areas, and there has been a steady decline in that sector.

Why is Mugabe so intent on holding on to power?

It’s a kind of megalomania. Where do you go after you’ve been president? And, increasingly, he has carried out human-rights violations, so there’s probably some fear of retribution after he steps down. And there are charges of corruption, particularly within his family; those may also be a factor.

When he passes from the scene, who is likely to take over?

There are several different factions within his ZANU Party [the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front], that would vie for succession. It’s not clear who would come out on top. He has juggled the parliament in a way that has kept people a little bit off-balance. So it’s uncertain who will succeed him.

An observer team from South Africa gave Zimbabwe a good grade in the elections, but some of its members quit because they disagreed with that assessment. Can you explain what happened?

There were two southern Africa observer missions. One was from the Southern Africa Development Commission, a group of southern African countries. It found the voting day peaceful, but it criticized, in particular, the lack of media access. South Africa’s parliament also sent an observer mission, in which there were at least two dissenting views of the mission’s conclusion that the election was largely free and fair. The dissenting views did not come from ANC [South Africa’s ruling African National Congress] members, but from two other observers.

Critics of the South African parliamentary delegation’s approval of the election charge that President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa is repaying a debt to an old friend. What do you think of that?

That isn’t an accurate assessment of what’s going on between South Africa and Zimbabwe. In the last few years, when people have been very concerned about the political situation in Zimbabwe- the systematic destruction of the judiciary, and the crackdown on the opposition- people looked to South Africa to exert influence to change the situation. After all, Thabo Mbeki was a leader in the creation of the New Partnership for Africa Development, NEPAD, which emphasizes democracy and good governance. South Africa provides Zimbabwe with most of its electric power and has a good deal of economic leverage.

So people have been very disappointed that Mbeki has taken a very mild approach toward the situation in Zimbabwe. I think it can be explained in several ways. First of all, they’re not friends. Robert Mugabe has relative disdain toward Thabo Mbeki. He didn’t like [Mbeki’s predecessor] Nelson Mandela. He had, in fact, supported the rival liberation movement in South Africa, the Pan-Africanist Congress, so it has never been a close relationship.

Second, Robert Mugabe enjoys a great deal of support among rank-and-file Africans because he was a liberation leader, because he fought against an apartheid system and British colonialism in Zimbabwe. Mugabe plays on that a great deal. He’s kind of a folk hero, [which makes it difficult] for another African leader to oppose him.

Third- and I think this is the most important factor- Thabo Mbeki has very little respect for the opposition party in Zimbabwe. He probably considers it a tool of the white farmers. He also is conscious of the fact that he could have opposition coming out of the labor movement in South Africa, so the idea of a liberation party being replaced by a labor-based opposition does not appeal to him. His strategy for dealing with Zimbabwe has been to encourage a situation in which Mugabe would gradually retire or step aside and [allow] ZANU to find a successor. There would be some kind of accommodation with the opposition over time, but no real change in the governance situation.

I think that’s what is guiding Mbeki. He gets a lot of criticism for that, not only in the United States, but within South Africa, and it has led people to say, “What does this mean for the future of NEPAD, and does it mean South Africa could go the same way as Zimbabwe?” That makes some investors nervous. That view is an exaggeration, but I think it has hurt the reputation of NEPAD as a new vehicle for Africa standing up for democracy.