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Zimbabwe’s Meltdown

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
March 19, 2007

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At the end of February, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe celebrated his 83rd birthday with lavish festivities one dissident likened to “throwing a party at a funeral” (Australian). The surreal spectacle seemed to highlight the ineffectuality of political challenges to the president, despite the country’s dire economic straits—its inflation, at some 1,600 percent, is the highest in the world. Yet after a brutal crackdown (CSMonitor) on the opposition, Mugabe’s position no longer looks so secure. International pressure is mounting, and the opposition has grown more vociferous. “Every day Mugabe spends in power makes the situation worse,” writes the Zimbabwe Independent.

Following last week’s arrests and beatings of several opposition leaders, including Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), activists across Zimbabwe rallied to demand their release (IWPR). In an op-ed in Britain’s Independent, Tsvangirai writes, “Far from killing my spirit, the scars they brutally inflicted on me have reenergized me.” But Mugabe’s forces responded with more brutality, severely beating (SAPA) the MDC’s public information officer as he was preparing to make a flight to Brussels.

Many Zimbabweans and international observers say the MDC cannot effectively challenge Mugabe’s rule alone. In a CFR.org Podcast, Zimbabwean journalist Peta Thornycroft says the MDC is so weak that in Zimbabwe, “the economy is the opposition.” She argues that change will have to come from dissenters within Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party.

There are signs that senior officials within ZANU-PF—whose business interests have been hit by the economic crisis—are pushing Mugabe to step down. “The desire to remove Mugabe within the year provides a rare rallying point that cuts across partisan affiliations, and ethnic and regional identities,” writes the International Crisis Group in a new report that suggests conditions are ripe for political change. This Backgrounder provides historical background to Zimbabwe’s current economic and political crisis.

Mugabe’s attacks on the opposition sparked renewed condemnation from the international community and promises of renewed pressure. The United States is considering new sanctions, and Britain has called on the UN Security Council to take up (VOA) the issue. However, European Union and United Nations officials are skeptical that new sanctions would have any effect. The BBC takes a look at what Zimbabwean bloggers are saying about the recent international attention on their country.

Within Africa, where leaders have long been loath to criticize Mugabe, pressure is also mounting. He “enjoys a great deal of support among rank-and-file Africans because he was a liberation leader,” says CFR’s Princeton Lyman. Yet the African Union chairman admitted the situation is “very embarrassing” (AP), and the South African Development Community will meet on March 26 and 27 to discuss the situation (SABC News). South Africa has substantial leverage over Harare, in part because it provides most of Zimbabwe’s electrical power. But it has largely avoided taking a stand against Mugabe, instead following a path of quiet diplomacy. While some charge this is due to South African President Thabo Mbeki’s friendship with Mugabe, Lyman says this explanation is incorrect. “Thabo Mbeki has very little respect for the opposition party in Zimbabwe,” he says.

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