Regime Change

Until recently, Robert Mugabe, the eighty-four-year-old president of Zimbabwe, has answered those who criticize his regime by telling them to “go hang.” He has expressed contempt not only for the concerns of the international community, but also for the opinion of the Zimbabwean people, whom he has tried to buy off or bully for most of three decades.

In March, after losing the first round of an election to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe sent out soldiers and armed gangs to torture, rape, and kill people associated with the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Tsvangirai was forced to withdraw from the June run-off election and take refuge in the Dutch embassy. The crackdown was referred to as CIBD—Coercion, Intimidation, Beating, and Displacement. By the time it was over, more than a hundred people had been killed, and more than two hundred thousand displaced. Observers from neighboring African countries declared the run-off undemocratic, but democracy, too, can go hang when it gets in Mugabe’s way. “We are not going to give up our country because of a mere X,” he said in June. “How can a ballpoint pen fight with a gun?”

Not even Mugabe, though, can ignore the disastrous effects of his government’s corruption and incompetence. Zimbabwe is now a failed state. Eighty percent of its population is unemployed, and 3 million of its 12 million people have fled the country. Meanwhile, most of those who remain aren’t getting enough to eat. The inflation rate is the highest in the world and one of the highest in history-officially 230 million percent, though some economists say it’s really in the billions. In August the government knocked ten zeros off the country’s currency, so that it could recycle old bank notes that had become worthless. The government can’t afford to pay teachers, collect garbage, or bury the dead piled up in its morgues. The UN’s World Food Program is now feeding 2 million Zimbabweans and, according to projections, may soon have to feed another 3 million. Mugabe himself remains comfortable, of course, but he can no longer pretend not to notice these things, and neither can the rest of the world. Nelson Mandela, long a defender of Zimbabwe’s government, has publicly lamented the country’s “failure of leadership.”

Once it became clear that Mugabe’s African allies were no longer willing to look the other way, he finally agreed in September to share power with the MDC. He would remain Zimbabwe’s president, Tsvangirai would become prime minister, and cabinet posts would be split evenly between the two parties. The details were to be worked out in negotiations mediated by Thabo Mbeki, then president of South Africa. The MDC and its Western supporters had originally demanded a transitional government, but the September agreement was better than nothing, and maybe good enough—as long as Mugabe honored his part of the deal.

But in early October, Mugabe unilaterally gave his party control of all the most important ministries, including those in charge of the courts, the army, and the police. The MDC was offered a few leftovers—for example, water management—and later, when it insisted on something more important, the finance ministry, which is now powerless to stop the country’s economic meltdown. Then, in a final proof of bad faith, Mugabe refused to give Tsvangirai a passport so that he could travel to Swaziland, where negotiations between the two men were supposed to take place. Mugabe showed up anyway, and acted as if he had been stood up. The talks were rescheduled, but the message was clear: Nothing has changed.

Nothing will change until the international community intervenes. China and Russia must be persuaded to stop blocking UN resolutions that would freeze the assets of Mugabe and his senior officials, ban them from all foreign travel, and impose a strict arms embargo. The fourteen member-states of the Southern African Development Community need to replace Mbeki—who was recently forced from power in South Africa—with a new mediator, one more concerned with Zimbabwe’s welfare than with protecting Mugabe and his generals from future prosecution for political violence.

Finally, the United States and the European Union, which have taken the lead in opposing Mugabe’s dictatorship, must keep up the pressure. Mugabe is counting on the West to lose interest in his country’s problems now that he’s promised a unity government. But it should be clear to everyone that his promises are worth as little as his country’s money.

October 28, 2008

Published in the 2008-11-07 issue: 
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