Starving the Voters is How Mugabe has Rigged the Election

Robert I. Rotberg

The Chicago Tribune

With a parliamentary election set for Thursday, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has found a way to reach the voters: starve them to death. Such tactics are the latest in a long line of atrocities he has committed against his own people

But don't expect Zimbabweans to rise up in revolution. And don't expect any harsh words or actions from outraged neighbors. Mugabe's repressive regime has hoarded precious supplies of corn, the country's staple food, to distribute to voters in swing constituencies. In the last year, Mugabe's government dismissed warnings by the United Nations World Food Program that nearly 3 million of Zimbabwe 's 11 million people could starve to death, banned all foreign-relief shipments of corn and began doling out precious handfuls of it in areas presumed to be loyal to his ruling party. Zimbabwe's crops have been limited this year due to lack of rain and experienced farmers. Since 1999, Mugabe and his henchmen have chased more than 4,000 farmers, most of them white, off their lands, causing food production to collapse.

Shortages of food, cooking oil, gasoline and other things have become widespread since Mugabe and his crew started stealing large sums and simultaneously bankrupting the nation's economy. Nearly 80 percent of the population is unemployed. Foreign exchange reserves are nil.

The Mugabe regime survives, however, thanks to the forced siphoning of the proceeds of gold and other mineral exports and help from Iran.

Zimbabweans are not suffering in silence; it is simply that they are not being heard. Mugabe successfully rigged the last parliamentary elections in favor of his ZANU-PF party in 2000, despite an overwhelming urban vote for the opposition movement. He falsified the 2002 presidential election. In the last two national elections, some constituencies returned more votes for Mugabe than there are citizens in those areas.

European and American observers are consistent in their expectation of yet another hollow victory for Mugabe's party at the end of the month.

In addition, intimidation is rife. Last year, reports of attacks by Mugabe's thugs and youth brigades (the so-called Green Bombers) against opposition supporters abounded. This year, despite official southern African guidelines intended to promote fair elections, violence has again been rampant.

It would seem that Mugabe's treachery would cause outrage around the world. Given that all radio and television broadcasting is controlled by the government, as are all of the daily newspapers, the populace does not understand how widespread the oppression is. Reporting by foreign correspondents is illegal, and the last of the country's regular resident foreign reporters was deported last year. Mugabe's regime recently began jamming independent radio broadcasts from neighboring Botswana with special Chinese equipment supplied by Iran.

Even if these stories were reported, it is not clear anyone would listen. President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, who calls the shots in the region, several years ago promised President Bush and Washington that he would curb Mugabe's excesses. He assured Bush that quiet diplomacy and constructive engagement would work. Thus far, Mbeki has refused to act or even to criticize Mugabe publicly out of ruler-to-ruler solidarity. Even if he did, Mugabe disdains even the leader of powerful South Africa. He is determined to continue ruling over and destroying Zimbabwe indefinitely.

Despite these outrageous conditions, observers should not expect this impending falsified election result to lead to a rose or orange revolution, as it did in Georgia or Ukraine. Sadly, not even pious words against Mugabe are expected by the African Union, the Southern African Development Community or neighboring South Africa to compel a fair election.

Moral and physical intervention of outside nations would dramatically impact Mugabe's efforts. South Africa controls Zimbabwe's electrical power supply and nearly all of its import and export rail, road and air traffic. Cutting off the regime could at the very least thwart its efforts and perhaps foster an environment that would turn the military against him and eventually lead to Mugabe's removal.

In the meantime, the prospects are not bright for the people of Zimbabwe. To the contrary, Mugabe's staying power and tactics are mirroring those of oppressive regimes in Cambodia and North Korea . Left unchecked as he has been, there is no telling how far he will go.

Robert I. Rotberg is director of the Belfer Center's program on intrastate conflict in Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and president of the World Peace Foundation.

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