Saturday, February 28, 2004

In a previous posting, a reader asked why I seemed to have an obsession with Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. There are probably groups who do worse things than Mugabe's ZANU-PF cult, but they tend to be rebel groups. Mugabe and his cohorts have the benefits of diplomatic niceities, ambassadorships and invitations to official conferences, to say nothing of unlimited access to the state treasury. He also has the high profile, public backing of otherwise respectable and democratic leaders like Olesegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki, the presidents of Nigeria and South Africa respectively. Although other thugs may be a bit worse, none of them are considered an 'emminence grise' or grand old man of their region, let alone a would-be spokesman for developing countries (a misnomer when applied to Zimbabwe).

Perhaps the most galling thing is that Mugabe and his thugs probably couldn't destroy the country any faster if it was their conscious plan to do so. When acceeding to independence in 1980, Zimbabwe had great infrastructure, good schools and roads and a solid economy. Although Mugabe imposed some pretty horrific repression in the south of the country (opposition territory) in the early 80s, eventually he co-opted them. They also built decent educational and health systems. There was some corruption and harassment but basically the social situation was fairly decent when Mugabe and ZANU-PF were unchallenged masters of the land.

But in the late 90s, people started getting sick of economic stagnation and political asphyxiation. Mugabe tried to ram through a constitution that would legally give him near dictatorial powers but the opposition united and amazingly, the constitution was rejected. I say amazingly because usually even an actual No vote would normally be transformed into a Yes result by, um, creative vote counting. But they expected to win so handily that they didn't bother to rig the results beforehand.

The defeat infuriated Mugabe and he's been on the rampage ever since. Mugabe's critics called him a Marxist, but really his tactics are more Stalinist. Sheer terror. Little to do with economics and everything to do with maintaining power at any cost. Although his seizure of white owned farms has gained the most publicity in the west, this only scratches the surface of the nightmare that is Zimbabwe.

They have indoctrination camps set up to brainwash young people. The regime stands accused ofmanipulating international food to punish political opponents. This along with more "garden variety" crimes like torture, intimidation and surveillance of nearly every independent political and social organization and a war against what little remains of the local free press. They effectively banished all international media from the country, since they obviously want no foreign witnesses to the nightmare. Despite this, the BBC managed to make a documentary about the regime's torture training camps.

And excellent article detailing the horrors of Mugabe can be founding by clicking here. It's an interview with Samantha Power, the excellent author of the must-read book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.

So the reason Mugabe infuriates me is because, more than nearly any other basket case in the world, Zimbabwe could be so much better. Even if its rulers were merely negligent.

By all accounts, most Zimbabweans are so good-natured and resilient that they deserve 1000 times better. Living in Africa is how I learned that patience is not always a virtue. One of the reasons many African countries are in such bad shape is because Africans tend to be (and I know this is a huge generalization) very good at adapting to whatever situation arises. In one sense, this is an ability without which they wouldn't survive or would at least go crazy. However, the fact that they rarely reach the boiling point means that they put up with too much. They, the ones not doing anything wrong, who adapt rather than the thieving thugs who call themselves rulers. The people rarely get so pissed off that they just throw the bums out. To a certain extent, there's something to be said for good old fashioned Western impatience.

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