The Butcher of Harare
The Butcher of Harare
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

The Butcher of Harare

Last month, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe stood in front of international leaders at the United Nations summit in New York and slammed rich countries for monopolizing power at the expense of the developing world. But if anyone is monopolizing power at the expense of that part of the developing world known as Zimbabwe, it is, of course, Mr. Mugabe himself.

Since assuming the reins of power a quarter century ago, Mr. Mugabe and his party have increasingly ruled Zimbabwe with unbending brutality, controlling every aspect of peoples' lives and continuously trampling on human rights. As a result, over four million Zimbabweans now need food aid, and the country is struggling with 70% unemployment, chronic fuel shortages and triple-digit inflation. The World Bank has described Zimbabwe's economic situation as "unprecedented for a country not at war."

As usual, Mr. Mugabe tried to tell Zimbabwe's citizens and the rest of the world that his country's destruction is the fault of everyone but its leader and his ZANU-PF party. He blames the country's former colonial rulers, even though Zimbabwe became independent in 1980. And he blames the west's economic sanctions, even though these came into effect long after the country's economic slide began and were the consequence of the country's appalling human rights record.

While visiting Cuba recently, Mr. Mugabe unashamedly accused the IMF of undermining developing countries. Harare has been in arrears to the Fund since February 2001 and was nearly expelled last month but then granted a six-month reprieve to enact serious economic reforms.

Mr. Mugabe's trump card, however, is always race: the West is attacking Zimbabwe because its leadership is African, he boldly proclaims at every opportunity. Never mind that western democracies, human rights groups and conflict resolution organizations usually act as equal opportunity critics of repressive dictatorships: Belarus in Europe, North Korea and Uzbekistan in Asia. Zimbabwe is hardly being singled out.

The Mugabe regime has managed to make itself even more ignominious in recent months. The horrific slum clearance campaign, Operation Murambatsvina, made an already disastrous humanitarian situation worse. Between May and July, the government displaced more than 700,000 Zimbabweans from their homes, sources of livelihood or both. It forced half a million children out of school or seriously disrupted their education. Altogether, Murambatsvina adversely affected about 2.4 million citizens -- nearly 20% of the population. This has all been documented in the devastating report put together by Anna Tibaijuka, the Tanzanian director of the U.N. Human Settlements Program.

The situation is now taking another disturbing turn. For years, the regime has sought to limit international exposure of the crimes it commits against its own citizens by restricting foreign journalists from reporting inside Zimbabwe and using draconian legislation to close down private newspapers, radio and television stations. Now it seems that Mr. Mugabe wants to further limit civil liberties.

Under new draft regulations currently under consideration, Zimbabweans would be required to obtain exit visas to travel outside the country. In addition, Mr. Mugabe signed a constitutional amendment allowing the government to withdraw the passport of any citizen it considers "injurious to the national good." By severely restricting the freedom of its own citizens to travel abroad, Zimbabwe would rank at the very bottom of the league of repressive states, along with North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Zimbabwe is drawing ever closer to a collapse that would pose a grave threat to its neighbors. What needs to be done to save lives and improve the security of southern Africa is clear. The immediate humanitarian impact of Operation Murambatsvina must be reversed. The world must maintain international pressure for constructive change, including tightening existing sanctions to include family members of regime figures. Another important contribution would be to support Zimbabwe's civil society and pro-democracy movement. African leaders need to persuade Mr. Mugabe that the best thing he can do for his country is take part in a well-managed, early exit strategy.

Their reluctance, though, to press for that kind of strategy in Zimbabwe presents a serious challenge. While European and U.S. pressure can help to some extent, real change in Zimbabwe will only come about if key African Union leaders, especially South African President Thabo Mbeki, decide to push Mr. Mugabe to step down in an orderly manner. South Africa could play a key role by conditioning credits to Zimbabwe on serious economic reform and managed political change. As the neighbor with the most to lose, South Africa might just want to consider that option.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.