Jodi Liss: Down and Out in Zimbabwe

By Jodi Liss

These past weeks it has been hard to decide which politician is more completely out of touch with reality: Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, who apparently sought to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder, or Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who seems uninterested that thousands of his people are suffering and dying from cholera.

Of course, whatever Blagojevich has done is peanuts compared to Mugabe, who has driven his once-successful country into the ground with a 231 million percent inflation rate (which sounds almost comically impossible—unless you’re there), a ruined physical infrastructure, the destruction of property rights, commonplace violence, an economy that has contracted more than 40 percent in the past decade, and now epidemic diseases. And, of course, there is the fact that he lost the national election last spring. He stays in power because the Zimbabwean military and the ZANU-PF party thugs have an interest in keeping him in power.

Anyway, Mugabe’s days are numbered. His country is in a slow death spiral; he’s also 84. The question is what happens to Zimbabwe after his end. Sure, there’s Morgan Tsvangirai, the guy who more or less did win the elections—but members of the military are already engaged in an internecine struggle for supremacy. This week, one of the Zimbabwean military’s own, Air Marshall Perence Shiri survived an assassination attempt considered by many to have been an inside job. Whatever happens to Mugabe, these commanders will not quietly accede to change that will cost them prerogatives and power.

What is in the offing, according to U.S. Ambassador James McGee, is a collapsed or failed state.

In his recent book on development, The Bottom Billion, noted economist Paul Collier tells of being told why, after decolonization, the developing world’s governments turned out so inept: the homegrown technocrats (of which Africa had precious few) were shoved aside from power by those with a less educated, more military background. Those who could run a government competently were replaced with cronies.

No doubt political power is a much more direct and sexy proposition to understand and pursue than attempting the frustrating and complex workings of a functioning economy. But they are both essential and they have to grow together. One of the lessons of the post–Cold War period is that strongman politics just don’t hold up without foreign sponsorship. States do fail. Recuperation from collapse is agonizingly slow, difficult, and fraught—Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, are still in shambles, and Sierra Leone and Liberia are flat with corruption and sluggish development.

Some kind of intervention in Zimbabwe seems essential, but no one is ready to bell the cat.

It should be South Africa but for the nostalgia between the governing party, the ANC, and Mugabe. This is too bad, and also hypocritical. South Africa under apartheid was notorious for instigating conflict around southern Africa (as in Mozambique), and it’s good that they now out of that sort business. But while leaders of many African countries will not do anything publicly to interfere with the rule of their brother leaders, they still seem only too willing to meddle covertly and destructively: witness Sudan and Chad; Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea; Charles Taylor’s Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone; or, perhaps worst of all, the Democratic Republic of Congo with five million dead, now a stomping ground for Rwanda’s ethnic clashes, and picking grounds for nearby vultures like Angola, Rwanda, Uganda, and, yes, Zimbabwe.
Ironically, Zimbabwe itself is in one of the more promising sub-regions of Africa. Its neighbors include emerging Zambia, the prosperous South Africa, Mozambique (which survived its own descent in the 1980s), and the current poster child for development, democracy, and good governance, Botswana. Botswana has broken with the usual say-nothing approach of many African countries and expressed disapproval of what is now going on in Zimbabwe. So has nearby Kenya.

It is in these countries’ interest to do something, anything, about Zimbabwe—just the way it is in a normal neighborhood’s interests to avoid a string of foreclosed and abandoned houses. The spillover is real and will get worse.

One approach that has not (to my knowledge) been tried is the Golden Parachute. Messy as it is, maybe the best way to get rid of Mugabe is to offer him a safe exit and cushy retirement. If he is not interested, maybe his cronies in the military would be. This approach has worked in the past with dictators who were a threat to their neighborhood: Idi Amin of Uganda wound up in Saudi Arabia, Charles Taylor in Nigeria, and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. True, this approach works best when the dictator involved is staring at an approaching military invasion and needs a way to high-tail it out of there. But, in the absence of anything else, it’s worth a try.

Does this circumvent the cause of justice? Yes. Is it unfair? Yes. But is it better to watch thousands die and say “there goes the neighborhood”?

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Jodi Liss is a former consultant for the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme, and UNICEF. She has worked on the “Lessons From Rwanda” outreach project and the Post-Conflict Economic Recovery report. Her article, “Making Monetary Mischief: Using Currency as a Weapon,” appeared in the winter 2007/8 issue of World Policy Journal.

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