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From Hero to Despot, and the World Watches in Silence

May 07, 2000|George B.N. Ayittey | George B.N. Ayittey, an associate professor of economics at American University and president of the Free Africa Foundation, is the author of "Africa in Chaos."

WASHINGTON — African leaders have a knack of blaming everyone but themselves for their continent's woes. Last August, they demanded $777 trillion in reparations from Western Europe and the Americas for enslaving Africans while colonizing the continent, an amount that exceeded the total sum of the gross national products of all the countries in the Western Hemisphere. Most Africans greeted the demand with a yawn. Not because slavery and colonialism did not inflict deep wounds on the continent. Rather, Africa's leaders have overused "external factors" as convenient alibis to conceal their own failures and abdicate responsibility for their failings.

Now, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, once a hero to his people, is following the blame-game tradition. Sadly, Africa's leaders and supporters around the world are letting him get away with it.

After 20 years of mismanagement and corruption, Zimbabwe's economy is in tatters. There is a chronic shortage of mealie meal, the nation's dietary staple. Inflation surged to 60% a year, unemployment hovers near 50%, foreign investors have fled and a serious fuel shortage cripples economic production. The Zimbabwean dollar, worth two U.S. dollars at the time of the country's independence in 1980, is now worth three cents. With interest rates at 55%, domestic investment remains frozen. Per-capita income has fallen from $950, in 1980, to $600 today. About 61% of the population live below the poverty line, according to the recently released Zimbabwe Human Development Report. One-eighth of the population is infected with AIDS. Mugabe's decision last year to send 11,000 troops to fight in neighboring Congo's civil war cost his cash-strapped government $1.2 million a day.

Mugabe is now casting about for scapegoats. He angrily rejects any criticism of his government's policies, blaming greedy Western powers, "that monstrous creature" (the International Monetary Fund), the Asian financial crisis and white commercial farmers for his troubles. To deal with the country's economic crisis, he asked the people of Zimbabwe for draconian emergency powers and an extension of his 20-year rule. He also sought authority to seize white farms without compensation for distribution to landless peasants. Zimbabweans resoundingly rejected his requests.

Stunned by his first defeat in 20 years of virtually unchallenged rule, Mugabe vowed retribution and played his trump card: He sent his guerrilla-war veterans to occupy white farmlands. Disregarding the February referendum, Zimbabwe's rubber-stamp parliament rammed through legislation authorizing the government to seize land from white farmers without compensation. More than 1,000 farms have been occupied. Curiously, 10 such occupied farms are owned by black opposition leaders. The police, under instructions from Mugabe, have refused to evict the war veterans, who have threatened civil war should Mugabe's party lose postponed parliamentary elections.

Violence, however, is increasingly aimed at intimidating the opposition and black commercial farm workers, who are often beaten unless they surrender their membership cards in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the main opposition party, and pledge support to Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. In nine weeks of political violence, 15 persons have been killed, including 12 MDC supporters. Hundreds have been beaten up or had their houses burned for their allegiance to the opposition party.

To be sure, there is basic inequity in the distribution of land in Zimbabwe. Whites account for only about 1% of Zimbabwe's population of 12.5 million, yet 4,500 white farmers continue to own nearly one-third of the country's most fertile farmland.

The Lancaster House accords, the legal basis of Zimbabwe's independence, established a land-reform program under which land was to be purchased from white farmers for redistribution to landless peasants. Australia, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United States and the World Bank provided funds for the program. So far, the government has distributed more than 1 million acres. But the land went to 400 wealthy Zimbabweans, most of them Mugabe cronies. Such grotesque mismanagement of the program prompted Britain to withdraw financial support in 1992, after contributing more than $60 million. The remaining donors have suspended about $10 million in land-reform aid.

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