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Zimbabwe: Is Mugabe's Regime Unraveling? - 2003-02-13

Next week, Zimbabwe will mark the 79th birthday of the country's president -- Robert Mugabe. But most observers note that few people will be celebrating.

Once a breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe now is on the verge of starvation. Severe drought has been compounded by what experts call a "man-made" famine brought on by forced land redistribution.

Annual inflation is running at about 150%. Unemployment exceeds 50%. And, the Zimbabwe dollar has virtually collapsed.

Robert Mugabe is routinely criticized in the West for harassing journalists, jailing opposition leaders and rigging elections -- particularly his own re-election last March.

Chester Crocker served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under President Ronald Reagan. Now a Professor of Strategic Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, Mr. Crocker says the crisis in Zimbabwe is "intolerable."

"It cannot just continue like this. The country is being trashed. The economy is being trashed. The human rights abuses are horrendous, the politicization of food distribution -- a number of things of that kind," he said. "They don't paint a pretty picture of the country. I think that we're going to see more and more reports of how bad it really is because I don't think the government can keep all what is going on in the dark."

There's near universal agreement among experts that Robert Mugabe's policies are destroying the economic and social fabric of the country. That leaves many analysts wondering: is the Mugabe regime coming to an end?

"It's important to note that Mugabe's rule in Zimbabwe is firm, but fragile," said Robert Lloyd, professor of International Relations and Director of the Center of International Studies and Languages at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, California.

"The government is running out of resources. And so Mugabe's ability to buy-off people and to have those around him he can support through financial benefits are declining enormously," Mr. Lloyd said. "And when the calculations are made by his followers that, 'Hey, the party's over,' then I think there would be some rapid deal making going on."

But Professor Lloyd and other observers note that Robert Mugabe is keeping a close eye on supporters who might break ranks. And experts say it's unlikely that the country's military leaders will pressure Robert Mugabe to leave any time soon.

For now, the levers of power remain in Mr. Mugabe's hands. Analysts point out that the regime's ability to manipulate the availability of scarce commodities -- to allocate food to Mugabe supporters and to deny it to his opponents, for example -- is enabling the Zimbabwean leader to cling to power.

Experts warn that economic collapse, political repression, widespread famine and an AIDS epidemic that has infected as much as a third of the country -- make it increasingly difficult for people to rise-up against the regime.

International sanctions targeted against Robert Mugabe and his associates seem to be having little affect. And, according to Pepperdine University's Robert Lloyd, Zimbabwe's neighbors are reluctant to intervene.

"Among African states there has been a reluctance to criticize Mugabe and really put the pressure on him in order to create a regime change and for understandable reasons, Mr. Lloyd said. "They're feeling like he is one of their own. And even though many African states have a democratic system of government, there is still a reluctance to criticize another African leader."

"The international community really doesn't have much leverage," said Economist George Ayittey of American University in Washington.

"The United States will have to work through South Africa or the regional leaders. And so far, the U-S has been doing exactly that -- calling on the leaders of southern Africa to put pressure on Mugabe," Mr. Ayittey said. "Unfortunately, the actions of the leaders of southern Africa have been very, very disappointing because they have rallied behind Zimbabwe. And [in South Africa] Thabo Mbeki's response to the crisis in Zimbabwe has been very feeble. We don't see any action on the ground."

So how might change come to Zimbabwe? Spontaneous demonstrations culminating in a palace coup or perhaps Robert Mugabe stepping down and going into exile? Analysts can only speculate.

"The question comes then in looking at a post-Mugabe regime: How much of the past do you continue?," Mr. Lloyd said. "What policies did he make and how much of the old government do your keep in?"

According to Robert Lloyd, Zimbabweans will have to weigh the possibilities of justice and peace to prosecute those responsible for the country's collapse or simply rebuild.

"There's an accounting that has to to take place where people take a look and say, 'What happened, what do we need to do, what were the political demands of the time, what were the responsibilities of individuals?'" Mr. Lloyd said. "And in taking a look at other cases such as South Africa, Mozambique, Guatemala, Chile and Argentina, it is an enormously difficult process, which stretches on for years and years and years. And that's the sort of post-Mugabe legacy they're going to have to deal with."

"This is where the rub is going to be," Mr. Ayittey said. "Given the elections and all of the violence and human rights violations and the fact that more than 2-million Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa, there are those who have been the victims of abuse, torture and so forth. And there are those who might demand that Mugabe account for his misdeeds. A lot of injustices and brutalities have been committed, which the government may be forced to account for. But if the reformers insist upon this, it's going to make it more difficult for Mugabe to relinquish power or leave gracefully."

Rebuilding Zimbabwe will take decades. Many analysts compare the country to an intensive care hospital patient. They say that once Robert Mugabe is gone, Zimbabwe will have to be "stabilized" with massive amounts of food and medical assistance to help cope with the immediate problems of starvation and AIDS. Reviving the patient will involve addressing the long term problems of rebuilding Zimbabwe's economy and restoring the rule of law.

But Georgetown University's Chester Crocker is optimistic about Zimbabwe's return to constitutionalism.

"At the highest level, it has been very badly politicized with sitting judges being literally coerced and intimidated out of office basically by party thugs playing the race card," Mr. Crocker said. "But that doesn't mean that they have destroyed the whole legal fabric of the country. There is a relatively developed history in Zimbabwe of a judicial system and judges and legal education and legal standards. People know what those standards are or at least what they should be. So I think it's not impossible to return and restore some of that in a post-crisis environment."

As Zimbabwe's downward spiral continues, most analysts agree that Robert Mugabe is nearing the end of his rule. But if so, when? The key, observers say, is to foster regime change in Zimbabwe without inflicting even more damage on an already suffering country.