JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Former President Jimmy Carter on Monday said Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis was far worse than he could have imagined and expressed dismay that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his government refused to acknowledge the problem even existed.
"The entire basic structure in education, healthcare, feeding people, social services and sanitation has broken down," Carter said at a news conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. "These are all indications that the crisis in Zimbabwe is much greater, much worse than we had ever imagined."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, November 27, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Zimbabwe crisis: An article in Tuesday's Section A about the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe incorrectly stated that Kofi Annan is secretary-general of the United Nations. He is a former secretary-general; the current secretary-general is Ban Ki-moon.
Carter was part of a delegation denied entry into Zimbabwe last week to assess the crisis. The delegation also included U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Graca Machel, the wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela.
An estimated 4.9 million people in Zimbabwe are desperately in need of food aid and 300 have died in a cholera epidemic.
The delegates are from a group of prominent public figures known as The Elders, set up by Mandela to address serious crises around the world. Instead of traveling to Zimbabwe, they held meetings in neighboring South Africa with Zimbabwean refugees and opposition leaders, South African government officials, diplomats, humanitarian agencies and nongovernmental organizations.
Citing those briefings, Carter said Mugabe and his government had refused to meet with the United Nations and charitable organizations as well as ambassadors from the major donor countries for the last year.
"I think it's the established policy of the Mugabe government that there's no crisis in Zimbabwe," he said.
Carter said this year's planting season had been squandered because there was no seed available. The earliest possible harvest now is April 2010; farmers would need to be planting now to catch the rains for next spring's harvest. "Meanwhile people are suffering from lack of food, which is the most critical need at this time."
He said none of the four main hospitals in Zimbabwe was working and only 20% of children were attending school, compared with 80% last year. The main reason was that teachers stopped showing up because salaries, about $1 a month, did not even cover their transportation costs.
South African President Kgalema Motlanthe said the crisis was so serious that Zimbabwe could implode and collapse. He said the root cause was the lack of a legitimate government.
Mugabe, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and the leader of a small opposition group, Arthur Mutambara, agreed in September to share power following disputed elections, but soon after, Mugabe allocated the most powerful Cabinet jobs to his party, ZANU-PF. South African leaders have been putting intense pressure on Tsvangirai's party to accept those appointments, which would leave the Zimbabwean leader in control of the military and intelligence services while sharing police with the opposition.
Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, argues that it would not be able to solve the humanitarian crisis with Mugabe and his security forces still dominating the nation.
Annan said regional leaders, who belong to the Southern African Development Community, had been slow to act as the crisis unfolded, particularly after African observers condemned elections in June.
But he also ratcheted up the pressure on Tsvangirai, saying that if Zimbabwe's leaders put the interests of the people first, they'd draw the right conclusions on what was most important.
"We have indicated to [the opposition leaders] that the most important issue is the lives and suffering of the people and that must be paramount," Annan said. "I'm sure we would have given the same message to President Mugabe if we'd met him."
Tsvangirai's spokesman, George Sibotshiwe, said it was wrong to blame the MDC for Zimbabwe's crisis.
"The person who's responsible for the mess is Robert Mugabe," he said. "He's been in power for 28 years."
"We have to approach the problem in a sober and realistic way with due consideration of the long term," he added.
"If the MDC rushes into government and they're unable to provide solutions, the humanitarian situation will get worse."