- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2000

Hailed as an African model of reconciliation among former white settlers and blacks, Zimbabwe at independence in 1980 held much promise. Its Marxist-Leninist leader, Robert Mugabe, who waged a bitter 15-year guerrilla struggle against the racist white minority regime of Ian Smith, was swept into power as a hero. Today, it is teetering on the brink of collapse and implosion.

Casting about for scapegoats, Mr. Mugabe has angrily rejected the criticism of his government's policies and blamed, instead and naturally, greedy Western powers, the IMF, the Asian financial crisis and white commercial farmers. But Zimbabweans knew better. In a Feb. 15 referendum, they resoundingly rejected Mr. Mugabe's request for constitutional authority to seize white farmlands without compensation and to extend his 20-year rule by 10 more.

Stunned by his first political defeat in unchallenged power, Mr. Mugabe vowed retribution, played the race card and unleashed his thugs to occupy over 1,000 white farms. Ten such farms are owned by black opposition leaders and in the ensuing violence, more than 20 people have been killed: four white farmers and 16 black opposition supporters. On April 22, the office of The Daily News, which has been critical of Mr. Mugabe's handling of the economy, was firebombed. Two weeks earlier, the black editor of the paper, William Saidi, received a death threat, warning him to stop criticizing the government. "I don't think race is the primary thing," said Mr. Saidi.

The general plan is to silence all opposition. Indeed, scared of losing power, Mr. Mugabe postponed parliamentary elections, slated for March, to April, to May and then to August. On May 6, Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and two lower-ranking party officials were arrested and jailed for four hours, without charges. Now, anyone who supports the opposition is targeted. The Amani Trust, which offers medical and legal aid to victims of torture and violence, estimates that there have been more than 5,000 acts of violence, including rape, murder, destruction of property and assault against opponents of Mr. Mugabe's ruling party.

To be sure, there is basic inequity in the distribution of land in Zimbabwe. Whites account for only about 1 percent of Zimbabwe's population of 12.5 million, yet 4,500 white farmers continue to own nearly a third of the country's most fertile farmland. But the land redistribution program, set up at independence, was so grotesquely mismanaged and riddled with corruption that Britain withdrew from the program in 1992, after contributing $60 million. The United States followed suit in 1998.

On March 28, Mr. Mugabe's own parliament acknowledged government purchases of more than 2 million acres from white farmers under legal compulsion since 1980. But some of the farms were left idle or abandoned and over 1 million acres were distributed to 400 wealthy Zimbabweans, mostly Mr. Mugabe's cronies.

Back in 1994, 20 farms seized from white farmers were immediately grabbed by high-ranking government officials, and again in 1998, 24 farms of the Marula Estate in Matabeleland, totaling 300 square miles, were divided among 47 government officials while 40,000 impoverished Zimbabweans remained crammed in the neighboring Semukwe Communal Area. Mr. Mugabe's army chief, General Solomon Majuru, is now the country's largest landholder. "The whole land and race issue is a classic diversion of attention from the real issues which are facing this country: high unemployment, inflation and poverty," said Professor John Makume, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe. But this diversionary tactic comes at a great cost.

Forcible seizures of farmlands have dealt a devastating blow to Zimbabwe's tobacco crop, the country's major hard-currency earner. Thousands of bales of tobacco have been burned by Mr. Mugabe's thugs and farmers face ruin. If they are unable to service their bank debts, Zimbabwe's overextended banks could collapse. Disgusted at the political turmoil and violence, foreign investors are fleeing Zimbabwe in droves. In the first quarter of 2000, as much as $1.3 million fled Zimbabwe, adding to the $11.4 million that left in 1999. And the ripple effects on the economies of the entire southern Africa region will be devastating.

Most disappointing and reprehensible has been the silence of key administration officials, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and black American civil rights leaders, who pompously portray themselves as friends of Africa. Erroneously casting the crisis as "black versus white" and therefore racially sensitive, they have fled to the hills chased out of town by political correctness as if the 16 black opposition supporters killed had anything to do with inequitable distribution of land. The silence of these so-called friends of Africa is telling; where do they really stand with the people and the rule of law or with a despot desperately trying to hang on to power? Those unwilling to uphold the rule of law in Zimbabwe and respect the will of its people have no business pontificating about freedom to Africa. A definition of "freedom" that exonerates a black despot, just because he fought against white colonialists, only compounds Africa's woes.

George B.N. Ayittey, a native of Ghana, is an associate professor of economics at American University, and president of The Free Africa Foundation. His new book, "Africa In Chaos," is published by St. Martin's Press.

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