The International Monetary Fund warns that Zimbabwe's troubled economy is near collapse with rampant inflation and soaring poverty. The IMF details the economic crisis gripping the country once known as a breadbasket of southern Africa. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's opposition leaders are considering a boycott of next month's elections for a newly created upper house of parliament.
Zimbabwe is suffering its worst economic crisis, with unemployment and interest rates at a record 70%, and inflation running at more than 350%. The International Monetary Fund warns that Zimbabwe's gross domestic product will likely shrink another seven percent this year. And some economists predict that by year's end inflation could reach 1,000%.
Hundreds of businesses have closed, foreign investment has dried up, Western governments have frozen aid and millions of people are in danger of starvation.
Zimbabwe's Social and Economic Meltdown
Domestic and overseas critics blame Zimbabwe's economic crisis primarily on President Robert Mugabe's strongman rule and quasi-Marxist economics. Among the problems most often cited are Mr. Mugabe's land re-distribution policies, endemic corruption, the absence of the rule of law and Zimbabwe's involvement in Congo's civil war.
Chester Crocker, Professor of Strategic Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during the Reagan Administration. He says the social and economic meltdown in Zimbabwe includes political intolerance, electoral fraud and gross human rights violations.
According to Professor Crocker, "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. They don't paint a pretty picture of the country. I think we are going to see more and more reports of how bad it really is."
Economic sanctions against the country were triggered by Mr. Mugabe's policy of forcibly seizing land owned by the country's white farmers, and the implications of his policies for private property rights and foreign investments in the country. Started five years ago, Mr. Mugabe's land re-distribution has crippled agricultural production, lead to widespread shortages of food and robbed Zimbabwe of its major exports and income producers, corn and tobacco.
According to the World Food Program, about four million people in Zimbabwe are now in need of food aid. A recent operation to "clean up" cities by bulldozing alleged illegal dwellings has left another 700-thousand people homeless, adding to the ranks of the hungry. Even the Zimbabwean military has been hit by chronic food shortages.
Peter Kagwanja of the International Crisis Group in Pretoria, South Africa says many members of Robert Mugabe's 40-thousand strong army are angered by the government's refusal to increase their salaries and provide adequate food. Mr. Kagwanja says disgruntled soldiers could pose a threat to President Mugabe's regime, which depends on the state security apparatus for its survival. He says, "One of the most recent indicators that things are bad are reports that more than 2,000 members of the military have been sent on forced leave because the Army can't feed them. That came as a shock because the military is really 'the goose that lays the golden egg' in Zimbabwe. In the past, the leadership has been able to convince the population that their problems are directly linked to the impact of sanctions imposed on the country by 'imperialistic powers.' But this is beginning to lose hold."
Zimbabwe's Few Supporters
Peter Kagwanja says Zimababwe, shunned by the West, now relies heavily on one of its few remaining supporters, South Africa.
Mr. Kagwanja says, "One of the reasons many people feel strongly that Zimbabwe can't collapse or disintegrate is simply because South Africa would do everything in its power to ensure that it has no failed state at its doorstep. Also South African companies have invested in Zimbabwe and are owed by Zimbabwe. If South Africa shut down its main companies today, Zimbabwe would go dark in a minute. Electricity is supplied from South Africa, telecommunications, as well as investments in towns and other areas."
But many observers doubt whether South Africa has sufficient resources to keep Zimbabwe afloat indefinitely.
Earlier this year, Mr. Mugabe launched a policy called "Look East," which seeks trade and political agreements with Asian countries friendly to Zimbabwe, primarily China.
Robert Lloyd is Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center of International Studies and Languages at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, California. He says the "Look East" policy is chiefly intended to ensure Mr. Mugabe's political survival.
"Because resources have been shrinking, Mugabe has been forced to find new patrons," says Professor Lloyd. "His traditional relationship with Britain has been strained to say the least. The United States has been busy trying to isolate the government. South Africa deals with Zimbabwe, but it is sort of cordial and correct, not necessarily warm and embracing with lots of money being given. The European Union has been trying to isolate Zimbabwe. This leaves China as a source of resources and patronage."
And like most analysts, Professor Lloyd contends Mr. Mugabe uses the country's resources for personal gain and to consolidate his authoritarian rule.
Professor Lloyd says, "He has been able to control those resources and then pay individuals who participate in supporting his rule. As time has gone by, he has run out of sources to keep the patronage. If you play out the trend into the future, you could see a point when he simply would not have resources to do that. And at that point, you could see a very quick regime change in the country."
Robert Mugabe, says Professor Lloyd, already has challengers within his own party who are willing to strike a power sharing arrangement with the opposition in the event of Mr. Mugabe's political downfall. There is still hope, note many observers, for a peaceful democratic transition in Zimbabwe. Although some opposition leaders oppose next month's parliamentary elections, they say they remain committed to assuming power through the ballot box.
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