- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2000

Conservatives who call for using U.S. foreign aid as a lever to force foreign leaders to make hard decisions are often depicted as coldhearted. But in the case of Zimbabwe, this is the only policy that makes sense.

In fact, it is long overdue. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has led his country to the brink of implosion. His policies flout democracy and the rule of law and have ruined a once-healthy economy. U.S. officials should urge Mr. Mugabe to resign and withhold all assistance until he does. They should also plan on working with the United Nations to supervise elections once Mr. Mugabe leaves office to restore democracy and stability to the troubled country. Mr. Mugabe, a former guerrilla leader whose efforts helped end the white-minority government of the former Rhodesia, has been in power since 1980. Under his leadership, the country's considerable economic potential including a relatively diversified economy has been squandered and its democratic laws openly disregarded.

Much has been lost. Zimbabwe was once a wealthy nation (at least, compared with the rest of sub-Saharan Africa) with a history of manufacturing for export, a thriving tourism industry, and a strong agricultural sector. But an economic slide that began in 1995 has become a crisis. Unemployment now tops 50 percent. An acute fuel shortage and an inflation rate above 60 percent have crippled domestic industries and transportation. Prices for bread and fruit have jumped by more than a third since October. Zimbabwe's fiscal deficit has soared, largely because the government refuses to trim the bureaucracy and amend its poor fiscal policies.

Worse, the government's land redistribution program, designed to aid poor black Zimbabweans, is riddled with corruption and mismanagement. Most land purchased or seized by the government for redistribution has ended up in the hands of high-ranking government officials.

The current crisis began in earnest with a political setback for Mr. Mugabe this past February, when a referendum to extend his rule and authorize the seizure of farmland from white Zimbabwean farmers without compensation was defeated by a public vote. Fearful that this foreshadowed difficulties for his party in parliamentary elections slated for June, Mr. Mugabe urged his supporters to illegally occupy more than 1,000 farms owned primarily by white Zimbabweans. He threatened anyone who supported the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In the months leading up to the elections, at least 31 persons were killed and hundreds beaten.

Not surprisingly, the parliamentary elections were neither free nor fair. According to U.N. election monitors, supporters of opposition parties were threatened and 10 percent to 25 percent of the votes were fraudulent. Despite such intimidation and manipulation, the MDC won 57 of the 120 elected seats in the parliament. Following the election, Mr. Mugabe issued an amnesty order for many crimes committed in the months before the election. Many of those who illegally occupied the farms and committed assault, arson and even murder against innocent civilians during that time are to be made members of the army reserve.

Under the circumstances, it is understandable that Zimbabweans have been rioting. Mr. Mugabe has responded by sending in police and troops to attack the rioters with tear gas and clubs. The riots could lead to national chaos, which could in turn affect Zimbabwe's neighbors. The MDC has introduced amotion to impeach Mr. Mugabe out of fear that his continued rule will result in more violence.

It's past time that Congress and the Clinton administration spoke up to condemn Mr. Mugabe's anti-democratic policies. But this isn't enough. Washington should also suspend assistance to Zimbabwe's government. The United States has invested more than $750 million in Zimbabwe since 1980. Congress has appropriated $14 million in foreign aid for Zimbabwe in 2000, and the administration has requested $16 million for 2001. All assistance should be frozen until Mr. Mugabe relinquishes power.

We wouldn't be acting unilaterally: The World Bank has already suspended aid to Zimbabwe due to its delinquency on debt service, and the International Monetary Fund froze disbursements to Zimbabwe when it learned the government had misrepresented expenditures in support of troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo and failed to meet economic targets.

Further, U.S. officials should start making plans now to assist in elections following Mr. Mugabe's abdication or removal from office. Zimbabwe has viable opposition parties, as shown by the June election of 57 MDC parliamentarians. To help restore democracy, the United States should work with the U.N. and non-governmental organizations to organize and supervise elections soon after Mr. Mugabe leaves office.

The tragedy of Zimbabwe rests squarely on Mr. Mugabe's shoulders, but Washington's failure to speak out and support democracy and the rule of law in Zimbabwe has contributed to the people's suffering at the hands of the Mugabe government. Fortunately, it's not too late to reverse this oversight and truly help the people of Zimbabwe.

Brett Schaefer is the Kingham fellow in international regulatory affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

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