World looks away as Mugabe's rule spawns misery in Zimbabwe

August 07, 2006|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- With the Middle East near a full-fledged conflagration, with the janjaweed militias continuing their campaign of genocide in Darfur, with Afghanistan again spiraling out of control, it's hard to shine a spotlight on one small disaster in a faraway corner of the world. Nevertheless, a moment of mourning for the once-proud African nation that was Zimbabwe seems in order.

Oh, it's still there on the map. But it's hardly a functioning nation anymore. It has been brought low in a single generation by the tyranny of just one man, Robert G. Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980. The unemployment rate hovers near 80 percent; the inflation rate is more than 1,000 percent.

About 20 percent of the population is believed to be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The New Yorker recently quoted the World Health Organization on declining health standards: "The life expectancy of a Zimbabwean woman has dropped from 61 years, in 1991, to 34 years, the lowest in the world."

Zimbabwe should have been a model of multiethnic democracy and economic growth. Mr. Mugabe didn't have to be as wise as Nelson Mandela to make his nation work; he just had to avoid being a madman. Unfortunately, that's exactly what he turned out to be. And the world stood by while he ruined a country.

Black Americans have flocked to start businesses in South Africa; a few have sought citizenship in Ghana, which is offering the gimmick to draw entrepreneurial black Americans to live there. But little of that attention was ever focused on Zimbabwe, which might have turned out differently had international pressure been brought to bear on Mr. Mugabe.

Instead, other African leaders turned a blind eye, afraid their own human rights records might be examined if they turned up the heat on the Zimbabwean dictator. Inexplicably, political leaders such as former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young have defended Mr. Mugabe.

"Our black leadership has been utterly ineffective in dealing with the autocrats and dictators in Africa who are not white," said Richard Joseph, political science professor at Northwestern University and director of its Program of African Studies.

When I visited Zimbabwe in 1983, its black intelligentsia was high on hope, convinced it could provide a model for black rule. After a decades-long guerrilla war against the whites-only government of what was then Rhodesia, black nationalists had finally brokered a peace accord, which led to elections that put Mr. Mugabe in power in 1980.

Much of postcolonial Africa was already a mess. Idi Amin had wreaked havoc on Uganda through his despotic and murderous rule; Nigeria had endured a civil war that led to thousands of civilian deaths in tragic Biafra; the nation then known as Zaire - now called Congo - was in the kleptocratic grip of Mobutu Sese Seko, who looted the country's natural resources before he was finally deposed in 1997.

Zimbabwe offered the chance for a fresh start, and for a moment it looked as if Mr. Mugabe would get it right. Though he had an autocratic instinct from the start - some suspect his army of murdering hundreds of political opponents - he sounded many of the right notes. He left in place an independent judiciary; he embarked on a literacy campaign for the country's uneducated black citizens; he called for racial reconciliation, urging Zimbabwe's 200,000 whites - including its nearly 50,000 white farmers - to stay and keep Zimbabwe free and prosperous.

But when poor blacks grew impatient with the pace of change, Mr. Mugabe responded by letting thugs seize the farms of white landowners and turn the land over to his supporters. The agricultural sector soon collapsed. Mr. Mugabe also began a brutal campaign against political opponents.

It's not too late for international intervention to save Zimbabwe, Mr. Joseph believes, but he acknowledges the difficulty in getting attention there. "There are so many tragedies [in Africa] to deal with," he said.

The only good news is that Zimbabwe is a relatively easy one to tackle. But the world community needs to get started - forcing Mr. Mugabe out and supervising elections - before there is no longer anything left to save.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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