Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since it gained independence from Britain in 1980. Then he was widely recognized as a champion of a new independent Africa. Now he rightly is seen as a repressive old man desperate to hold on to power at any cost.
Mugabe has turned Zimbabwe from the bread basket of southern Africa into a basket case. He has seized land for political purposes, displaced hundreds of thousands of suspected political opponents, trampled freedom of the press, crushed opposition demonstrations and rigged elections. At 83 years old, he is intent on securing yet another five-year term as President even as the people suffer from punishing economic collapse and ruthless repression.
The February 2000 defeat of Mugabe's proposed new constitution demonstrated the growing strength of the opposition. In response, Mugabe returned to the nationalist themes on which he rose to power in the 1970s: land redistribution and anti-colonialism. He seized farm land without compensation to distribute to cronies. Zimbabwe's economic melt down had begun.
In Zimbabwe today, everyone is a millionaire. A loaf of bread costs more than 1 million Zimbabwe dollars and the price of necessities doubles every few days. Zimbabwe's inflation is the highest in the world. The countries official annual inflation rate rocketed to nearly 15,000% in October, but some believe it is nearer to 50,000%.
In December, the Zimbabwe central bank withdrew the countries highest denomination bank note, the $200,000 bill and replaced it with new bills of $250,000, $500,000 and $750,000. In January those denominations were replaced with new bills of $1 million, $5 million and $10 million. A hamburger costs about $15 million Zimbabwe dollars, about $6 U.S. at the black market exchange rates used by most people.
Eight out of ten people have no formal employment. Nutrition, housing and sanitation are deteriorating. Fuel and electricity shortages have become commonplace. Twice in recent weeks there has been a complete shut down of electricity and running water.
While Mugabe issues statements blaming inflation on "Western destructive forces," the people suffer. People are starving. There is vitamin deficiency. "Zimbabwe once offered the most comprehensive medical service in Africa," a Zimbabwe doctor is reported to have said. "It is now becoming a textbook case of medical horror." Mothers look on helplessly, as their children lie dying.
Up to 3 million Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa to escape the crushing economic crisis at home. Foreign aid, remittances from the new diaspera, and barter help those left behind survive, but just barely. People hoard what goods remain and stampede shops whenever rumors fly of new supplies of cooking oil or maize meals.
Meanwhile, human rights violations are on the rise. Human Rights Watch has reported, "The government of Zimbabwe has permitted security forces to commit serious abuses with impunity against opposition activists and ordinary Zimbabweans alike."
The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum has said: "Cumulative totals for January 2007 to October 2007 show that there have been 549 cases of torture, 3,086 of unlawful arrest and detention and 2,719 violations of freedom of expression, association and movement...(and) three murders which are politically motivated."
This March general elections are tentatively scheduled. While Mugabe's repression and the economic deprivation he has inflicted upon his people have made him and his ruling Zanu-PF party widely unpopular, he nonetheless is expected to win his sixth term in office against a divided opposition. Mugabe is expected to win due to his control of the media and the electoral machinery, denial of opposition demonstrations and, if need be, falling back on his past practices of rigged elections in which opposition activists have been beaten and even killed.
President Bush has said, "In Zimbabwe, ordinary citizens suffer under a tyrannical regime. The government has cracked down on peaceful calls for reform and forced millions to flee their homeland. The behavior of the Mugabe regime is an assault on its people."
Mugabe must go. The tyranny must end.
Following past disputed elections, the United States and the European Union imposed targeted sanctions on Mugabe and some of his close associates. Additional sanctions should be imposed.
Zimbabwe's neighbors must help. South Africa has been reluctant to get involved. However, recently President Thabo Mbeki has tried to mediate between the government and the opposition to try to resolve differences. His efforts should be encouraged.
Tragically, there are many humanitarian and human rights catastrophes around the world. As U.S. attention is pulled in many directions, we cannot be diverted from the ongoing calamity in Zimbabwe.
Herbert is a 28 year old Zimbabwean. He has said, "I remember how beautiful our country was in the 80s...A lot has changed. Now, our country is dead. I really want a better Zimbabwe." Most Zimbabweans remember those better days. Despite the dark clouds of desperate economic deprivation and the brutal boot of Mugabe's repression, they still seek a better Zimbabwe. Their spirit lives. We must help give that spirit the light of a new day.