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Zimbabwe Under Pressure


Robert Mugabe became Zimbabwe’s president in 1987 after first serving as prime minister, and since then has kept a strong grip on power with the support of his political party, ZANU-PF, the Zimbabwean African National Union – Patriotic Front.

Though Zimbabwe has abundant mineral and agricultural resources, its economy has not performed adequately in recent years. A number of international bodies blame President Mugabe’s policies, especially his controversial land reform efforts that began in 2000, for the economic crisis. The object of the reform effort was to put Zimbabwe’s land in the hands of its black majority instead of control largely by landowners dating from colonial times. But the net effect of the land reform effort has for now turned Zimbabwe, traditionally a food exporter, into a land of increasing food shortages.

Most recently, the Mugabe government has engaged in a controversial urban clearance project it calls “Operation Murambatsvina” which translates roughly to “Drive Out Trash.” The Mugabe government said the clearance was being done to prevent crime, improve sanitation, and maintain order. Opposition groups in Zimbabwe assert that the operation is directed at areas where these groups have had their greatest political support. The United Nations estimates that at least 200,000 people have been made homeless, while private groups put the number of affected people much higher.

Though Operation Murambatsvina has triggered expressions of concern by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, the African Union announced on June 24 that it views the clearance project as an internal matter and would not get publicly involved. And that has triggered criticisms of the African Union. William Fletcher, president of Trans-Africa Forum in Washington, DC, explains why the A.U. would take such a position.

“Zimbabwe’s leadership," he says "knows on a personal level many of the leaders of other southern African countries. In fact, many of them were involved in similar movements against either western colonialism or white-minority rule. So, that makes it difficult for one to move against the other.”

Many have looked to South African president Thabo Mbeki to exert pressure upon Zimbabwe’s government to change its policies. But analyst Roberta Cohen at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC explains why President Mbeki will not take a public stand against Robert Mugabe. “This [Mugabe] was the big supporter of the anti-apartheid struggle led by the ANC [African National Congress] and no one has ever forgotten that. Publicly, it’s almost impossible for the South African leadership to give any public criticism.”

While regional leaders choose not to take public stands against Robert Mugabe and his actions, the West, including the United States, has been outspoken against him. But former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice, who served in the Clinton Administration, admits that options are limited. “Absent a policy of regime change," she says, "which I don’t see as likely, there is a limit to what the United States and others can effectively do at this point.”

Moreover, as analyst Jennifer Cooke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC points out, President Mugabe has skillfully used Western pressure to bolster his internal support. “In many ways, Mugabe has very successfully turned criticism of him by the U.K. and the United States as him and his country being under siege by people who have essentially racist and colonialist interests at heart,” she says.

Despite Robert Mugabe’s tight grip on power, there is a visible opposition movement in Zimbabwe. These groups and others assert that Zimbabwe’s last major elections in 2002 that kept Robert Mugabe in power were not free or fair.

Trans Africa Forum President William Fletcher describes how the Zimbabwean leader has been able to lessen the credibility, at least internally, of one of his major foes. “The main opposition group, the MDC – Movement for Democratic Change – made a series of mistakes in terms of the way they constructed their movement and built international support," he says, adding "The MDC tended to support the so-called 'Western consensus' in terms of economics and neo-liberalism. So President Mugabe and his supporters say these are allies of our enemies.”

With Robert Mugabe so far unwilling to bend to his internal opposition and to outside pressures, some say there has to be a different approach to influence him. Peter Kagwanja, with the private International Crisis Group in Pretoria, South Africa, outlines what he believes may be the only way to effect change with President Mugabe, and possibly to get him to leave office. “The most possible way," he says, "of getting to Mugabe is go to [South West Africa People’s Organization leader] Sam Nujoma of Namibia, [former president Joaquim] Chissano of Mozambique, [former president] Daniel Moi of Kenya and President Jose Dos Santos of Angola. And, send them to Zimbabwe. Why? Because these are the people Mugabe listens to.”

Jennifer Cooke at CSIS believes South African President Thabo Mbeki may be the best one to offer Robert Mugabe a so-called parachute out of his present situation. “A face-saving device for Mugabe would be for South Africa to engineer a retirement [for him]. That would save Mugabe from having to admit defeat and save Mbeki from continued criticism that he’s not doing anything on this issue,” she says.

Todd Moss, at the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC, describes what he believes may eventually drive Robert Mugabe out of power. “I think that the more likely outcome is that the economic conditions in Zimbabwe will continue to deteriorate," he says, "and that increased external pressure combined with deteriorating local conditions could force a split within ZANU-PF that could force him out.”

Some analysts strongly suggest that the continent may be counting on time and natural events to resolve the situation in Zimbabwe. After all, they say, President Mugabe is now over 80 years old and cannot stay in power forever.

This report was originally broadcast on the VOA News Now "Focus" program. For other Focus reports, click here