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Africa sliding

Published by Newsweek on 2000-05-01

Some months ago, President Robert Gabriel Mugabe of Zimbabwe traveled to the Namibian capital of Windhoek for a regional economic conference. In addition to the usual plenary sessions, Mugabe faithfully attended seminars on globalization, small-scale industries and technology. When a Newsweek columnist who'd interviewed him on earlier occasions asked Mugabe about his country's tottering economy and about how the erstwhile schoolteacher seemed like an attentive student at the workshops, the response was forthright. "I'm here to learn," Mugabe said, with a suggestion of a smile. "I always learn something from people wherever I go. Africa's leaders can teach others about building peaceful societies. But they must also learn more from others about how to build their own economies."

That was uncharacteristically modest coming from Mugabe, a man better known for braggadocio and brio. But it may also have been a deliberate softening of his public stance at a time when Mugabe was embroiled in controversies over his anti-West, anti-gay and anti-dissidents rhetoric. And it is arguable whether most African leaders are in any position to "teach" anyone about the construction of peaceful societies, given the continent's sorry record of coups and ethnic conflicts.

Last week, a different, combative Mugabe--a lifelong Marxist--was on display when he unveiled an election manifesto for his Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). The 72-year-old Mugabe attributed his southern African country's woes to economic sabotage by capitalist powers; he cited "neo-imperialism" and "neo-colonialism" as being responsible for social tensions in his nation of 12.5 million mostly poor tribal people. But, perhaps most troubling, Mugabe vowed to seize half of Zimbabwe's arable 12 million hectares from some 4,000 white farmers--who currently hold about 70 percent of such land--and "re-distribute" it to peasants. He demanded that Britain, which colonized the former Rhodesia in the 19th century, should hugely compensate his government for undertaking land reform--a demand that was met with scorn in Whitehall.

The reaction from Zimbabwe's 70,000 whites as well much of the non African international community was that of deepening alarm--especially since Mugabe also reiterated that he would not evict armed black squatters who'd been occupying nearly 1,000 white-owned farms since last February. At week's end, the Australian, British, New Zealand and U.S. embassies were reporting long lines of white applicants for permanent visas. On Saturday, a U.N. Security Council delegation led by U.S. Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke was scheduled to make a detour from a crisis mission to Congo and meet with Mugabe.

At week's end, too, President Thabo Mbeki of neighboring South Africa linked up with Mugabe at a Zimbabwe trade fair in Bulawayo; the meeting had been scheduled well before Mugabe's tirade. Mbeki surely had reason for concern. The South African rand hit a new low of 6.98 to the dollar on Friday, partly in reaction to the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe. But there was also worry among South African whites that Mbeki hadn't sufficiently distanced himself from his friend Mugabe's blatantly anti white moves. Indeed, Mbeki said that South Africa would not adopt a "counter-productive holier-than-thou attitude" toward Zimbabwe, although he added that "this important matter is dealt with in a cooperative and nonconfrontational manner among all the people of this sister country, both black and white."

Mbeki wasn't alone in his refusal to engage in plain talk with Mugabe. Not one African statesman--including U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian--has publicly criticized Mugabe (who capriciously postponed national elections in April but must hold them by July). Why the silence over Mugabe's travesties? It isn't necessarily because of any great admiration for his accomplishments. In his 20 years of power since Britain formally granted Rhodesia independence at the Lancaster House talks, Mugabe has steadily run his economy to the ground through profligate government spending and governance that's negligent about poverty alleviation and delivery of social services. Not even at parleys of what was formerly known as the Third World--the 133 poor nations which hold 5 billion of the planet's 6 billion people--is Mugabe lauded as is, say, Fidel Castro, another failed ideologue. Bluntly put, that's gutlessness.

Part of the reason why Robert Mugabe has been able to sustain his politics of racial confrontation is that it's long been traditional for African leaders to willfully overlook the follies of their brethren. The Organization of African Unity, for instance, actively discourages internal criticism of its 53 member-states. Uganda was once a showcase for a multiracial society in post-colonial Africa until military dictator Idi Amin Dada seized power, threw out the mercantile Asian community, and murdered tens of thousands of his fellow blacks. No condemnation was forthcoming from African leaders--until then President Julius K. Nyerere of Tanzania unilaterally dispatched his troops to topple Amin. In sympathy for Amin's plight, of course, the Saudis gave him sanctuary; to this day, Amin lives in luxury in Riyadh, where he once told Newsweek that he hoped the U.S. government would pay for his children's education. Far too many African leaders have skeletons in their personal closets--housed in Geneva or the Cote d'Azur--or are vulnerable because their spouses--like Grace Marufu Mugabe--are given to taxpayer-subsidized shopping sprees. Thus, criticism of a fellow leader could put oneself in much jeopardy.

Even the Commonwealth--a London-based organization of mostly former British colonies--is reluctant to comment on the excesses of leaders of its 52 members. In the name of dubious "Third World solidarity," almost anything seems to be forgiven. The recently revived Association Francophonie--former French colonies--is similarly inclined, with some officials even arguing that the French left behind stronger multiracial societies in Africa than the British or Portuguese did.

If there's some prospect of enhanced social stability in Africa, it may lie in the recent determination of donor countries to link aid and investment to better governance and transparency in policymaking. Robert Mugabe can thunder all he wants about white hegemony and neo-imperialism, but without hard currency and technical expertise from the non-African world, Zimbabwe's future will be bleak. Not even his most rabid followers are likely to savor living in a society riven with racial tensions and marked by widening impoverishment. That also doesn't augur well for Mugabe's political longevity.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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