- The Washington Times - Monday, November 26, 2001

While the attention of the world is focused on the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, half a world away in Zimbabwe, state-sponsored repression threatens to plunge one of southern Africa's most prosperous countries into a vortex of political violence and social chaos. The crisis in Zimbabwe has been building for years. President Robert Mugabe has turned his country into an economic and political basket case. The decline has been marked by government mismanagement, economic collapse, and rising ethnic and racial tensions. As Mr. Mugabe, once a popular leader, has fallen from hero to hanger-on, his efforts to cling to power have become increasingly desperate.

In mid-November, to cite one recent example, Mr. Mugabe issued a decree allowing his government to dispossess white Zimbabwean farmers of their land before a judicial appeal is completed. This was the latest strategy in what is known as the "fast track land resettlement program," in which Mr. Mugabe cynically hopes to win the votes in next year's elections for president by confiscating white-owned farmland and redistributing it to poor black farmers. Thus, Mr. Mugabe seeks to further inflame and politicize the legitimate need to correct the post-colonial patterns of land ownership in Zimbabwe in which whites, who make up less than 1 percent of the population, control the majority of the country's most attractive farm land.

Seeking to stem the maddening spiral into chaos in Zimbabwe, Africa's most influential countries, Nigeria and South Africa, led a Commonwealth effort earlier this year to broker a settlement aimed at ending the human-rights abuses and violent farm takeovers. The resulting agreement stipulated that the government of Zimbabwe would stop promoting violent and extra-legal land appropriations and Britain, the former colonial power, would pay for an orderly and legal land-reform program to right the land imbalance.

But violence continues to be used as a tool not only against white farmers but also against the government's black political opponents. According to Amnesty International and local Zimbabwean human- rights groups, the violence is carried out by government-sponsored partisans. The most notorious are the "war veterans," who regularly threaten and beat political opponents. In the past 18 months, the "war veterans" have forced up to 70,000 black farm workers to leave their homes.

In addition, journalists, judges and human-rights activists who have asserted their professional independence have been arrested, threatened and harassed by the government. The leading independent daily newspaper, the Daily News, has had its printing press bombed. And just this month its editor, Geoff Nyarota, was arrested on unspecified charges and later released, as part of an ongoing pattern of government harassment.

Members of the main political opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), have also been attacked, beaten and even killed by ruling party partisans. Earlier this year, Zimbabwean victims of political violence filed a landmark case in the United States against Mr. Mugabe. A U.S. judge ruled recently that although Mr. Mugabe, as head of state, enjoyed immunity, he could be held liable for party-sponsored violence in his capacity as head of his country's ruling party.

But violence and government repression are only part of the story. The country's once-vibrant economy, which depends heavily on agriculture, has collapsed. In addition, erratic rainfall, steep rises in the price of staple foods, high unemployment and disruption of the commercial farming sector have contributed to the specter of famine. The United Nations has agreed to provide emergency food assistance to the 500,000 Zimbabweans who are at risk of starvation. Even with this impending humanitarian disaster, Mr. Mugabe's government is seeking to take political advantage by monopolizing the distribution of food aid.

With elections nearing, the government of Zimbabwe is counting on international community attention being diverted elsewhere. Speaking about the party's political opponents a ruling party officials was quoted in the government-controlled press as saying, "If they [government opponents] are looking for a blood bath they will certainly get it." Given the consistent and clear warnings about impending chaos in Zimbabwe, an equally firm international response is needed to prevent the country from dissolving into a fratricidal war.

Learned Dees is program officer for Africa for the National Endowment for Democracy.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide