AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 40/2005

Zimbabwe's Downfall Robert Mugabe's Old Boys' Network

Robert Mugabe is inexorably destroying his country. Although the dictator is essentially persona non grata in Europe, African politicians celebrate the potentate as a nationalist messiah.


It's unlikely that the dictator hears much about what goes on in his foundering realm. When Robert Mugabe, 81, has himself chauffeured through the streets of Zimbabwe, his Mercedes S600L Pullman limousine comes fully equipped with a CD player, movies and Internet access.

Presidents Mugabe, Mbeki (2003 in Harare)
AP

Presidents Mugabe, Mbeki (2003 in Harare)

The head of Zimbabwe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, is already well-protected against would-be assassins. His 21-foot luxury limousine, powered by a V12 dual turbo engine, is so effectively armored that it can even withstand land mines and grenades. The five-ton vehicle consumes at least a liter of gasoline every five kilometers (the gas mileage equivalent of about 11 miles per gallon).

If Mugabe did in fact glance out of his car's tinted windows, he would see traces of his "Operation Murambatsvina" along the roadside. The program, which began on May 25, is officially known in English as "Operation Restore Order," but the rough translation of its name in the national language, Shona, is "Get Rid of Trash." Throughout Mugabe's realm, bulldozers are in the process of demolishing bothersome and unsightly slum neighborhoods, renderring their exhausted inhabitants homeless.

Throughout it all, "Comrade Bob" sits in his Mercedes and has himself driven through leveled cities, still believing in the illusion that Zimbabwe is the "jewel of Africa." Tanzania's first president, Julius Nyerere, coined the name in 1980 when it fell into the hands of then 56-year-old rebel leader Robert Gabriel Mugabe. At the time, Nyerere cheerfully admonished Mugabe to "take good care of it."

Nyerere died in 1999. A year later Mugabe, a self-proclaimed Marxist, began expropriating land from Zimbabwe's white farmers. Since then, the former Rhodesia, once a paradise for safari vacationers and hunting tourists, has been transformed into a scene of devastation.

For years the Europeans, driven by the uncompromising British, have been putting the thumbscrews on the man Bob Geldof has called a "murderous thug." Mugabe and 115 of his key henchmen, "who commit human rights violations and restrict freedom of expression and assembly," are no longer allowed entry into Europe. The United States has taken similar steps. The European Union and Germany have cancelled development aid to Zimbabwe.

But the most decisive pressure must "clearly come from African diplomatic circles," demanded Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister and currently the president of the International Crisis Group think tank. According to Evans, "South Africa is by far the most influential player and is capable of solving Zimbabwe's crisis." This is true, because the country does in fact depend on South Africa for its electricity. With a flick of a switch in Pretoria, Mugabe and his racist clique would be sitting in the dark.

Africa's favorite despot

But Africans, of all people, have been surprisingly willing to accept the dictator in Harare and his affectations. Hardly any African politician ever so much as voices a word of criticism about Mugabe. In March, when Mugabe held a charade-like parliamentary election in which his ZANU-PF walked away with a proud two-thirds majority, the African Union praised the farce as "free and credible" -- despite the fact that the results of the campaign's dirty tactics were on full display in Harare's hospitals: hundreds of wounded, victims of Mugabe's gangs of thugs.

The 13 representatives of the Southern African Development Community, a group representing the countries of southern Africa, came to the same odd conclusion -- at a time when the rest of the world had long since declared the election a fraud. "The procedure was credible," said South African Minister of Minerals and Energy Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, "and it reflects the will of the Zimbabwean people."

On another front, no one seems to want to say anything negative about Mugabe's new policy of razing slums, with the African Union saying that it will not become involved in Zimbabwe's "internal affairs." In an editorial, the South African weekly newspaper, Mail and Guardian, accuses Mugabe's critics of "hypocrisy" and former colonial power Great Britain of "demonizing President Robert Mugabe." After all, says the paper, millions of people are resettled somewhere in the world every year to "make room for tourists, dams, roads and airports."

When US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Mugabe's realm an "outpost of tyranny," the statement prompted South African President Thabo Mbeki to say that Rice's tone was damaging to South Africa's "silent diplomacy" with Zimbabwe. 

What's wrong with Africa's leaders, with the next generation that proclaimed an "African renaissance" and promised "good governance," a completely new style of leadership? At times it even seems that Mbeki's supposedly quiet democracy is really nothing but a cover for clandestine approval of the madman, who has called himself a "modern-day Hitler."

The old boy's network

Mbeki and Mugabe are old friends. In the 1980s, Zimbabwe served as a safe haven for leftist guerillas, especially South Africans and Namibians fighting the apartheid system. Ethiopia's former Marxist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, who allowed about a million Ethiopians to starve to death from 1984 to 1985, remains in exile in "Comrade Bob's" country.

Africans, it seems, are sticking together and displaying solidarity. When Mugabe recently revealed that his government was having financial difficulties, the South African government promptly came to his aid and promised Mugabe a half-billion dollars in credit, although the loan offer came with the stipulation that Mugabe make democratic concessions to Zimbabweans. This puts Pretoria in the same league with Beijing, which signed a trade agreement with Mugabe in July. In return, the Chinese were awarded rights to exploit some of the ailing country's mineral resources.

Even beyond political circles, Robert Mugabe also appears to enjoy wide-spread popularity on the African continent. When the monthly magazine New African had its readers vote for the "100 greatest Africans" last year, the despot from Harare managed a respectable third-place finish, topped only by über-father Nelson Mandela and Ghanaian independence hero Kwame Nkrumah. "Unlike some of his counterparts," writes one reader, in seeking to explain a poll outcome that is surprising for Europeans, Mugabe has avoided "becoming a neo-colonial puppet." A columnist for the paper wrote that "African nationalism is on the way to achieving a true victory."

Years ago, Namibia's first president and clandestine ruler, Sam Nujoma, called upon his counterparts to "unite and support Zimbabwe," adding that "the imperialists may not get back our continent." Nujoma also offered military support: "The colonial powers should know that Namibian forces will be in Zimbabwe within 24 hours, should they invade the country."

A dangerous demogogue

Maidei Chimbwe, a resident of the squatter camp Porta Farm, has her midday meal in the ruins of her destroyed house, near Harare, Zimbabwe.
REUTERS

Maidei Chimbwe, a resident of the squatter camp Porta Farm, has her midday meal in the ruins of her destroyed house, near Harare, Zimbabwe.


Whenever Mugabe's hateful speeches are broadcast on Zambian radio, white Zambian farmers' union president Guy Robinson knows what to expect. "Our phones ring off the hook for days," he says, "with agitated Zambians threatening us with violence and expropriation. A spark from this demagogue is enough to set off an explosive atmosphere here in neighboring Zambia."

A similar mood has even taken hold in Kenya, where picturesquely painted Masai warriors are becoming more and more openly hostile to white landowners, even threatening to drive out "the British." Whenever Mugabe gives his periodic hate speeches against whites, Nairobi daily newspaper The Standard is inundated with the letters of readers who write, for example, that the president in Harare is giving Africa "its pride back," or that it is important to know "that the colonialists are still exploiting the continent's raw materials."

An equally unsettling situation is unfolding in Namibia, where the government just expropriated farmland from a white family for the first time. Protestors recently marched down Windhoek's Independence Avenue carrying a banner which read: "Kill all Whites."

On a recent visit to Johannesburg, former US President Bill Clinton said that he understood solidarity with someone who was against apartheid, but added that it is also important to "speak out against the things Mugabe is doing."

25 disastrous years

Mugabe has been in power for a quarter century, and the results have been catastrophic. Unemployment is at 70 to 80 percent and inflation at 350 percent. Zimbabwe's foreign debt has climbed to more than $4.8 billion, but that didn't stop Mugabe from recently spending an estimated $400 million on military equipment.

With his recent "cleanup" program, Mugabe has renderred 700,000 Zimbabweans homeless and driven 500,000 children from their schools. In some cases, the police beat slum inhabitants to death when they attempted to defend their possessions; others were buried under the ruins of their corrugated metal huts.

The former breadbasket of southern Africa has deteriorated into the continent's poorhouse. Many of the 4,000 white farmers who were expropriated by the Mugabe government within a period of five years moved to neighboring Zambia , where they have produced record harvests. Agriculture, once the backbone of the Zimbabwean economy, now makes up a paltry 17 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

At least 200,000 farm workers lost their jobs as a result of the expropriation campaign. The situation has since become so hopeless that the head of Zimbabwe's central bank, Gideon Gono, recently said the white farmers should be brought back. But Gono's plea fell on deaf ears. Only last week, Mugabe's thugs attacked three white farmers so violently that they had to be hospitalized. The United Nations World Food Program estimates that more than 4 million Zimbabweans will soon need food aid.

About 3 million Zimbabweans have already fled to Botswana or South Africa. Last week, eight Zimbabwean soccer players -- some of them celebrities at home -- disappeared after a friendly match in Great Britain. Apparently they prefer living illegally in England over returning to the realm of dark leader Mugabe.

And given the climate of fear that prevails in Zimbabwe, the entrenched old man can hardly expect to see any opposition. Years of harassment have taken their toll on the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which is headed by Mugabe's adversary, Morgan Tsvangirai, to the point where the organization is barely functional today.

Indeed, people have become so hopeless that Pius Ncube, the Archbishop of Bulawayo, sees only one way out of the country's misery: "I pray for Mugabe's death."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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