Drunk on Power: Zimbabwe’s Mugabe

At independence in 1980, Zimbabwe (formerly known as Rhodesia) had many advantages. And, despite some domestic tragedies and the turmoil in neighboring South Africa, the 1980s were a decade of development progress for this former bread basket of southern Africa. Zimbabwe muddled through the 1990s, mostly living off the gains of the previous decade. In the 2000s, however, Zimbabwe descended into state failure, largely because of the power drunk rule of Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. Remarkably, after 32 years in power, Mugabe is attempting to prolong his tenure in elections planned for 2013.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Mugabe and his ZANU-PF cronies were anti-colonial revolutionaries and Marxists. Despite heightened tensions with the white minority population at independence, Mugabe initially chose a path of racial reconciliation and gained international goodwill. But, as Martin Meredith recounts in his excellent biography, Mugabe, the democrat-turned-dictator was fully exploiting the race card by the early 2000s. Like so many other power drunk “big men,” Mugabe settled on a governing program of regime survival at all costs.

In the 2000s, the ZANU-PF government pursued policies that led to state decay and economic collapse. A “land reform” program abruptly transferred productive farmland from white commercial farmers to blacks, but many of the key beneficiaries were well-connected Mugabe cronies. The government imposed crippling price controls on most consumer goods. Excessive printing of the national currency, flight of foreign capital, and general economic mismanagement led to other-worldly hyperinflation and the official abandonment of the Zimbabwean Dollar in early 2009. And, opponents of ZANU-PF were forcibly relocated from Harare urban districts, denied emergency food aid, and otherwise repressed by Mugabe’s thugs. As much as one-quarter of Zimbabwe’s population fled the country.

In economic terms, the situation in the country has stabilized since 2009, roughly coincident with abandonment of the national currency and the introduction of a nominally power-sharing government. Inflation is now in the single digits. Zimbabwe has registered economic growth of 5-10 percent over the last few years, and per capita incomes have roughly doubled, though from the very low annual number of $300. Adult life expectancy has risen from 43 years (2004) to 51 years.

Even so, Mugabe is a tyrant posing as a democrat. At one time he was a hero. But that time has long passed. The Southern African Development Community, the rest of the international community, and freedom-loving Zimbabweans should send “Uncle Bob” packing.

The singer Johnny Clegg got it right in his song “The Revolution Will Eat Its Children (Anthem for Uncle Bob)”:

He’s a leader, talks of freedom
He knows the power of the Big Idea
He’s a dealer, he’s a seeker
Of the power that comes from fear
He gave his life to the party machine
Holding on to a secret dream
He knows better than anyone
Power comes from the barrel of a gun

And he’s rising up against them now
And he’s rising up in country and town
Rising up against them now, rising up


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