The End of Tyranny in Zimbabwe

August 18, 2005
Robert I. Rotberg

The Boston Globe

Tyranny often ends in a whimper, not a conflagration. So it seems in today's Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe's immensely corrupt regime has destroyed a once prosperous African country, leaving behind only the stench of decay. No velvet revolution has been possible, but political and financial bankruptcy has finally pushed the dictator's back to the wall.

This week in Zimbabwe, inflation was over 300 percent. Gasoline continued to be obtainable only rarely, and on the black market. Corn, the staple food on which everyone relies, is scarce, and so is wheat, so long lines form whenever there are rumors of bread. Everything else, from margarine to matches, is outrageously expensive or unobtainable. Store shelves are bare, and hunger is common despite supplies of emergency relief packs from the UN World Food Program.

In addition to this misery, a result of Mugabe's misguided attempt to alter land ownership from white to black without providing seeds, fertilizer, and knowledge, 700,000 shantytown presumed opponents were driven out of their houses and sent to rural areas without any means of support or shelter. Condemned by the UN as pernicious and cruel, this exercise in ''cleansing" urban areas had no real purpose except as a flexing of power. It represented a final straw of contempt for his own people, and a finger in the eye of South Africa and the African Union.

Mugabe, 81, has finally run out of options. Zimbabwe's treasury is bare. The scraps of foreign exchange on which the tattered country has been relying for derisory amounts of imported fuel, power, and essential goods are now gone. No nation — not even China, Malaysia, and Libya, Mugabe's usual patrons of last resort — will lend the required $1 billion or so for which Zimbabwe has recently been begging. In Malaysia, Mugabe and his entourage were turned away, In China, Mugabe was feted royally, but all he obtained from his smiling hosts was a promise of a personal visiting professorship in a prestigious university.

Given a permanent cold shoulder by the World Bank and the IMF, Mugabe has had nowhere else to turn but to South Africa, his indulgent neighbor. South Africa has watched with horror as Mugabe systematically cultivated internal chaos. Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's president, nevertheless perversely refused to condemn Mugabe's outrages, persistently promising President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair that ''quiet diplomacy" would turn Mugabe around.

It never did. But finally, earlier this month, Mugabe had to go hat in hand to Mbeki, asking for hundreds of millions, if not the full $1 billion. In exchange for such a cash infusion, South Africa has demanded that Mugabe must negotiate in good faith with Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, a political party that European, American, and some African observers believe actually won the three rigged elections of 2000, 2002, and 2005.

''Never!" was Mugabe's initial petulant reaction. South Africa threatened to withhold its bailout. It also unleashed a regional diplomatic firestorm. President Olusegun Obsasanjo, president of Nigeria and chairman of the African Union, told Mugabe that he had to think again — that his time of tyranny was at an end. Obasanjo dispatched Joaquim Chissano, former president of Mozambique, to make sure Mugabe understood what he had to do. Chissano was instructed to moderate discussions between Tsvangirai and Mugabe that would lead to Zimbabwe's political and economic reconstruction, and possibly to properly supervised new elections.

The soft landing that is being forged would send Mugabe to comfortable exile, possibly in Namibia. Some kind of transitional coalition between the opposition and Mugabe's henchmen would begin the long, hard process of restoring sanity to the country's economy. It would also dismantle the baleful apparatus of tyranny, and create a political climate conducive to wholesale reform.

Fortunately, Zimbabwe has the human resource base on which to rebuild upon an eroded foundation. But ousting odious levels of corruption will be difficult. Dealing with the thievery of Mugabe's gang will be complicated. A truth commission-like process will be necessary, and so will selective prosecutions.

Zimbabwe is exhausted. Now that Mbeki and Obasanjo have at last acted, after years of smugly accepting unnecessary suffering in Zimbabwe, there is a fair chance that the battered nation's vital signs can be resuscitated.

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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