Zimbabwe continues its slide toward destruction. In the most recent outrage, President Robert Mugabe has evicted tens of thousands of traders from their shacks and razed their houses. It is hardly a coincidence that this “cleanup campaign” targets supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Following Mr. Mugabe’s theft of March parliamentary elections, the rule of law in Zimbabwe is largely fiction. Without some form of pressure, Mr. Mugabe will continue to rule the country as a fiefdom, condemning millions to hunger and starvation and the nation to anarchy.
Zimbabwe has been lurching toward chaos since 2000, when President Mugabe began the appropriation of farms of whites, nominally to give to black Zimbabweans but in reality to hand over to his political cronies. The result has been a disaster. The country that was once the breadbasket of southern Africa now cannot feed itself. It is estimated that some 3.3 million people did not get the food they needed in the first quarter of 2005.
The food shortages are part of a more general economic collapse. The economy is estimated to have shrunk by about 50 percent since 2000. Unemployment in Zimbabwe is thought to have reached 70 percent. Inflation in April was 130 percent per year, the highest in the world, but a fraction of the 623 percent recorded in January 2004. The national currency was devalued by 31 percent in May.
Zimbabwe’s voters were denied their chance to deliver a verdict on Mr. Mugabe in March. Parliamentary elections were judged to have been neither free nor fair. Election rolls were inflated by as many as 1.1 million voters — 20 percent of the electorate. Districts were gerrymandered to minimize the influence of MDC voters, and the ruling ZANU-PF party used violence and intimidation to scare anyone who indicated they would vote for the opposition. The government also used its monopoly of the media to undermine support for the MDC.
Since winning the election, Mr. Mugabe has continued to punish those who dare oppose him. After the security minister warned that the economic situation risked setting off unrest, the government began arresting and detaining large numbers of people — as many as 30,000 within three weeks. Most recently, the government began “Operation Drive Out Trash,” which has resulted in the eviction of some 200,000 people from shantytowns. As many as 2 to 3 million people could be left homeless as a result of the campaign. Thousands are already living without food, water or shelter. Malnourishment is visible and health experts worry about the spread of disease.
The president calls the program “a vigorous cleanup campaign to restore sanity” in urban areas. Officially, it is an attempt to eliminate areas of unregulated businesses and black marketers, where organized crime and corruption breed. Mr. Mugabe calls them “economic saboteurs” and holds them — rather than his ruinous policies — responsible for the country’s decline. Most observers think the campaign is an attempt to eliminate urban support for the MDC and to punish individuals struggling to survive.
Although the opposition called for a general strike in response to the crackdown, the government warned that it would deal harshly with anyone who joined the strike. The threat seems to have worked: Few people have joined the slowdown. That could also be a result of the high unemployment rate: Few people have jobs to go to, and those with jobs tend to be government supporters.
President Mugabe has led Zimbabwe since it won independence from Britain in 1980. He considers the country his and tolerates no challenge to his authority. His reputation as one of the towering figures of African independence struggles — an image that is much diminished as a result of his increasingly authoritarian ways — insulates him from pressure or criticism by other African leaders. Complaints by the Western world are dismissed as neo-imperialism and attempts to recolonize the country.
In fact, the only governments with any influence over Mr. Mugabe are his neighbors and they have been silent. It is unclear whether they are motivated by respect for his accomplishments, solidarity among African leaders, or fear that he may unleash his disaffected millions on them if they dare to criticize him.
Whatever the cause, their unwillingness to demand accountability from Mr. Mugabe perpetuates a grave injustice against the people of Zimbabwe and diminishes their own moral authority. African governments should demand that Mr. Mugabe halt his ruinous policies, end the abuse of human rights and restore Zimbabwe’s democracy or face isolation. Failure to do so risks unleashing a terrible tragedy on all of southern Africa.
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