At Large

From Breadbasket to Dustbowl

No end in sight to the suffering of Zimbabweans under Robert Mugabe.

By 4.13.05

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When Rhodesia's Prime Minister Ian Smith called for multi-racial elections in 1979, he was bowing to the inevitable. A decade-and-a-half of guerrilla war and international opprobrium had taken their toll on the Smith government. The prime minister, who had once bragged that whites would rule Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for 1,000 years, predicted that in typical third-world fashion democratic elections would mean one man, one vote, once. Marxist guerrilla leader Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party won the 1980 general election and has controlled the government and the ballot box ever since. Last month in parliamentary elections the 81-year-old leader's party won the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution giving Mugabe even more power.

"This election was stolen," declared opposition spokesman Paul Themba Nyathi, whose Movement for Democratic Change Party lost 16 parliamentary seats. The pro-democracy group Sokwanele told the Inter Press Service that last month's election proves that ZANU-PF cannot be defeated through the ballot box as long they control the elections. "Quite simply ZANU-PF will not permit any party, however popular, to beat them in an election," a spokesman said. The government's most outspoken critic, Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube, charged that Mugabe had for the third time fixed election results and withheld food aid from opposition supporters. "They are totally corrupt, and they will use anything to protect their power," he told the Washington Post.

In an interview with a South African newspaper, ZANU-PF spokesman Nathan Shamuyarira called Archbishop Ncube a mad, inveterate liar. "He, however, fits into the scheme of the British and Americans, who are calling for regime change and are feeding him with these wild ideas." President Mugabe has called the opposition traitors and sellouts to the white man.

Meanwhile, as the country's leaders and opposition bicker over bogus election results, nearly half of Zimbabwe's 13 million people will require international food aid this year. Another third are dying from HIV. And more than 3.6 million citizens now live abroad, mostly in Britain, South Africa, or as refugees in neighboring states.

UNTIL 2000, ZIMBABWE WAS the breadbasket of Africa, exporting wheat, tobacco, and corn to the rest of the continent and beyond. Zimbabwe contains the most fertile farmland on the continent, and until recently was a tourist Mecca, home of Victoria Falls, one the seven natural wonders of the world, and numerous game reserves, now nearly emptied by poachers and starving peasants. The newly independent country had yet more advantages, including excellent transportation and banking systems for its agricultural, mining, and tourism industries.

Though a die-hard Marxist, Mugabe was no dummy. He knew where his bread was buttered. He gave assurances to whites that their rights and property were secure. "We will not seize land from anyone who has a use for it," he vowed. At independence about 4,000 white farmers owned 70 percent of the fertile land; nearly two-thirds had bought their farms after independence and held titles issued by the Mugabe government, according to Harvard historian Samantha Power. "Good old Bob," white farmers called Mugabe. With markets watched over by the extremely capable former finance minister Timothy Stamp, Zimbabwe's economy remained the envy of the Dark Continent.

All that changed in 2000 as Mugabe's popularity began to slip. First the president's new constitution was rejected by voters, a constitution that would have radically increased his authority. Mugabe blamed the white farmers and black sell-outs for his defeat and immediately undertook fast-track land reform, which literally meant confiscating the best farms and giving them to his cronies, few of whom had any interest in farming. Mugabe justified the land grab by saying that white settlers had stolen the land from blacks, so they were simply taking back what was rightfully theirs.

Later that year a white farmer, David Stevens, was murdered by squatters. Within two years 10 white farmers had been murdered. Those that did not flee were soon evicted as the pace of land-reform quickened. By 2003, there were only 500 of the 4,000 large-scale farmers left. And these farmers could grow crops only at severe losses due to Mugabe's price controls and nearly 800 percent inflation. Today farm machinery lies rusting in ruined fields and emaciated cattle wander the back roads dying of foot-and-mouth disease. The land grabs, however, have done little to ease the plight of average Zimbabweans. Hunger and disease is rampant and unemployment now stands at 70 percent. And yet every night before the evening news the state-run television broadcasts footage from the colonial past as a reminder of what could happen if whites or their lackeys in the opposition regain power.

Thus, in the 25 years since independence the gains of black Africans have been realized only by Mugabe's cronies. As Harvard's Power notes, Zimbabweans have simply "swapped a white oppressor for a black one." One who arguably makes Ian Smith look like a teddy bear. Shortly after taking power Mugabe began a genocide against the Ndebele people during which 25,000 tribesmen were killed. When not directing genocide campaigns or torturing and killing political opponents, Mugabe is promoting racial hatred (particularly of whites) through his youth militias.

Even those Zimbabweans who support the regime for whatever reason are experiencing dramatic food shortages. Mugabe's response to the food crisis has been typical of his cavalier attitude toward his people. "We are not hungry," he told Sky News in May 2004. "Why foist this food upon us? We don't want to be choked. We have enough." When the U.S. tried to send food aid in 2002, Mugabe refused to accept it because the corn had been genetically modified.

DESPITE DRACONIAN ELECTION LAWS that make it illegal to criticize the government, despite blowing up and shutting down opposition newspapers, despite firing judges that ruled against him and placing armed sentries at polling stations, and despite torturing political opponents (Amnesty International documented 70,000 incidents of torture in 2002 alone), Mugabe somehow managed to lose the 2002 presidential election to Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the opposition MDC. It hardly mattered. If all else fails rig the vote count and charge the winner with conspiring to assassinate you.

But by far Mugabe's most effective weapon against the opposition is the political use of food aid. Estimates vary, but probably half the population relies on food aid from the west. A report by the U.S.-sponsored Famine Early Warning System Network estimated that half of Zimbabwe's 13 million people would have no food by March 2005.

These shortages have played into the hands of the dictator. In 2003, Human Rights Watch reported that "Zimbabwean authorities discriminate against perceived political opponents by denying them access to food programs." Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch called withholding food aid "a human rights violation as serious as arbitrary imprisonment or torture." Just to buy food Zimbabweans have to register with the local ZANU-PF party official. Often they must chant slogans like "Down with Whites! Long live Robert Mugabe!" writes Harvard's Power. And those without a ZANU-PF party card cannot receive government-subsidized grain.

International food aid, particularly that from UN food agencies, give the Mugabe government the prop it needs to remain in power. Without food aid as political leverage, experts say, the population would be more likely to revolt. Speaking to the Johannesburg-based Sunday Independent newspaper last week, Archbishop Ncube said, "I hope that people get so disillusioned that they really organize against the government and kick him out by a non-violent, popular, mass uprising....Because as it is, people have been too soft with this government." The most likely protesters, however, are among the country's 3.6 million citizens who have already fled the country.

One exiled "Zim" asked the BBC if such a dictator would be allowed to stay in power in a European country. Historically, the answer probably would be yes. As Prof. Power has documented in her book A Problem From Hell, the West has never once intervened to stop an ongoing genocide. Not the Armenian genocide, not the not Stalin's artificial famine in Ukraine, not the Jewish Holocaust, not the Cambodian Killing Fields, not Saddam's attack on the Kurds, and not the recent Rwandan genocide. Mugabe too was given a free hand with his slaughter of the Ndebele people, and his attacks on political opponents continue. Last week at the Pope's funeral, Prince Charles was photographed shaking Mugabe's hand. It caused a minor scandal in the UK. But by the time of Charles's wedding a few days later, all was forgiven and forgotten.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.