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Zimbabwe on the Brink of Collapse

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe remained defiant this week as he accused the West of trying to push his ailing nation into collapse. The southern African country's economy has been in a free fall as inflation in July hit an official rate of 7000 percent a year and unemployment topped 80 percent. Nearly one-third of the country's 13 million citizens have fled to neighboring states to escape hunger and poverty.

President Mugabe has blamed Britain, the United States and other western countries for trying to bring down his government. The West imposed targeted sanctions against Zimbabwe in response to what have been seen as widespread human rights abuses, political repression and rigged elections.

International relations professor Robert Lloyd of Pepperdine University in California says the sanctions place travel and financial restrictions on senior government officials but have not caused the country's economic woes.

"Sanctions are really designed to create a situation [for] expressing disapproval of President Mugabe and his policies. In that sense, there is sort of a moral impact. In terms of an actual economic impact, the sanctions are not designed to cause Zimbabweans to starve. That's caused by internal policies," says Lloyd. "But President Mugabe has been making the point that the reason why Zimbabwe is doing poorly is because it is standing up to the West and because the West is trying to punish him. However, it is difficult to see what specific policies the West has adopted which would be causing massive inflation and a collapsing economy."

Who is to Blame?

Most analysts agree that Zimbabwe's crisis is a combination of bad political, economic and land redistribution policies instituted by Robert Mugabe. His military involvement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's civil war a decade ago drained Zimbabwe's economy. And his seizure of white-owned farms starting in 2002 to gain political support brought the country's agricultural sector to a halt.

Georgetown University's Chester Crocker, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during the Reagan administration, says Mr. Mugabe used the land ownership issue to build what he calls "ideological popularism."

"It started with the government trying to blame the colonial power [i.e., Britain], trying to blame white farmers, trying to claim that the land belonged to the people and redistributing the agricultural land that was in commercial production. So they've destroyed the commercial farming sector, basically," says Crocker. "And so the government is giving land to its friends, who generally speaking are not farmers and don't know how to farm. Then what they've done is to just hollow out the agricultural sector of the economy. Zimbabwe used to feed lots of southern Africa. Zimbabwe can't feed itself anymore."

Zimbabwe's economy has contracted nearly 40 percent in the past decade. Its currency has lost most of its value since last year, when the government printed trillions of local dollars to repay overdue debts to the International Monetary Fund. The crisis was compounded in June when the government slashed prices to lower inflation. The measure backfired and forced the country to stop producing. Shelves went empty and hunger spread.

Donald Steinberg, the International Crisis Group's Vice-President for Multilateral Affairs in New York, says millions of educated professionals have left Zimbabwe to escape hunger and unemployment.

"Many of the producers are exiting. Huge numbers of other Zimbabweans are fleeing the country. The capacity to produce from the agricultural sector, from the manufacturing sector and from the services sector is disappearing," says Steinberg. "The inflation rate could reach ten-thousand percent, which is virtually unheard of in modern economies. And it really even challenges the basis of money because if you can't depend upon the currency, then it ceases to be a relevant exchange medium."

Steinberg says cronyism and the politicization of various state institutions have added to Zimbabwe's economic problems. "We're seeing massive corruption. The government continues to give preferential access to contracts, to jobs, to farms and to businesses to its friends. Foreign reserves have been stolen or shipped out of the country. The result of all of this is a tremendous decline in the socio-economic standards of the country and massive poverty."

Little Regional Pressure for Change

Many analysts say it is tragic that Robert Mugabe, who fought apartheid and was seen in Africa as a freedom fighter, should leave such a legacy. Roger Bate, an economist at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, suspects that this perception is the reason why neighboring states have not done more.

"What I think has happened is that Mugabe is seen as a hero in Africa as one of the leaders of opposition to colonial rule. And frankly, I don't think that the African nations, the other countries, are prepared to do anything because they don't want to upset the way that Mugabe is viewed. And I am surprised that they are allowing a country to entirely collapse internally because it is going to cost them," says Bate. "But ultimately, not breaking ranks with an anti-colonial freedom fighter leader seems to be more important than whether the country in question is absolutely collapsing."

Some southern African countries, in particular South Africa, are trying to mediate a resolution to the crisis. But most economists say there has been little progress. And some speculate that African states are hoping that Mr. Mugabe will step down ahead of his country's presidential elections slated for next March, thereby opening the door to political and economic reform.

But Georgetown University's Director of African Studies Scott Taylor isn't hopeful. "Whether Mr. Mugabe decides to transition power over in the elections remains to be seen. For a man in his early eighties, he is a very vital person. He is a shrewd politician, very intelligent. And he may well not do the transition to a successor that some people hope for. So I suspect we'll see business as usual for the foreseeable future until the entire political economy simply grinds to a halt. And when that is - - it's anyone's guess."

President Mugabe has clearly stated that he will not be forced into exile. Many analysts say he fears prosecution should he step down and likely will think twice before making a graceful exit.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.